By on October 18, 2015


An investor and analyst argued in column that appears in the New Yorker that Volkswagen engineers may have rationalized illegal behavior by incrementally cheating up to the infamous levels uncovered by researchers last year.

Using the catastrophic failure of the space shuttle Challenger as an example, Paul Kedrosky wrote that “normalization of deviance” could have led Volkswagen engineers to systemically cheat on emissions in the same way engineers rationalized colder and colder launches for the space shuttle until it finally disintegrated in 1986 because of failed, cold o-rings.

It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.

In his argument, Kedrosky wrote that Volkswagen engineers may have used software to skirt emissions rules because somehow cheating through software doesn’t feel as bad.

Stealing CDs from stores feels like theft; for a long time, at least, stealing music by downloading MP3s didn’t. Software changes the nature of our relationship to things, making rules feel malleable and more arbitrary. It enables the normalization of deviance.

And also that engineers in Germany can’t possibly force themselves to adhere to American rules because they’re smarter.

Some may have seen those tests as arbitrary, and felt justified in “tuning” the engine software to perform differently during them—even as it now looks, to the outside world, like an obvious scandal.

The crux of Kedrosky’s argument is mostly a “slippery slope” one: engineers paved the road to hell with great intentions.

At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives.

While possible, Kedrosky’s argument ignores plenty of other automakers who (probably) adhered to the same rules and that Volkswagen just probably wanted to maximize profitability on its cars by not including urea tanks, I think.

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62 Comments on “Columnist: ‘Normalization of Deviance’ Led to Volkswagen Cheating...”

  • avatar

    Thoughtless, inconsiderate mandates from the Environmentalist-controlled Government and short timetables to enact reform led to them cheating.

    The real question is:

    who else is cheating and what happens when they get caught?

    You think this is the end?

    It’s only the beginning.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Carmakers have been dealing with thoughtless inconsiderate EPA mandates and unrealistic timetables for 40 years now. The usual response is not to break the law but to either compromise some other attribute (power, gas mileage) in order to meet the emissions target (see the early Malaise Era vehicles) or else spend the money on a fix (e.g. catalytic converters), usually in that order. VW could have done either one but instead they chose to break the law and now they will pay for it.

      Every step along the way, whenever standards were tightened, the car companies said that the standards were either impossible to meet or else would be very costly, and in the end they managed to to meet them anyway at a reasonable cost and (eventually) without a large performance penalty. VW had solution available to them (urea injection) but they preferred lawbreaking instead.

      • 0 avatar

        Spot on, Jack. Couldnt have said it better.

        The test wasnt too hard and it wasnt impossible to pass, it was just too easy to pass by breaking the law. Obviously it is possible to build a diesel that will pass emissions. If GM and FCA could do it in their light trucks and the Cruze, VW could have as well. If the cost is too great and it therefor it isnt worth the effort, do as Ford and many others do and avoid the diesel passenger car market in the US altogether. If its too hot in the kitchen, get out!

        Blaming the EPA for VW’s cheating is like blaming the school’s rules about fighting when your kid breaks them and is expelled. It is beyond ignorant to suggest such. If the EPA’s rules made it impossible to pass, then you might have something, but clearly that is not the case.

        • 0 avatar
          Nick Engineer

          “[the test] was just too easy to pass by breaking the law”

          It would be a huge software engineering undertaking to provide a bullet-proof cheat that is also so well hidden. And a huge legal risk also. Why the costs involved in the software effort, and the potential legal costs were somehow deemed to be less than the cost of adding an SCR is a big question mark.

          • 0 avatar

            It would not be a huge software engineering undertaking to provide a bullet proof cheat. It was a simple use of a timer and looking at the data from the wheel speed sensors and steering angle. There was no attempt at hiding it as the software is not reviewed by the EPA. The vehicles themselves are not even tested by the EPA, it is a self certification process with some vehicles randomly tested or tested if a consistent anomaly is found.

            The software development is a one time cost that can be spread out over many vehicles so the cost per vehicle was quite low.

            Now the legal risk is a whole different can of worms.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick Engineer

            I fully agree on the accounting of one-time costs being spread out. I am even going to discount the incremental cost of any hand-tweaking that might be needed on the “switch” for each new vehicle line, or engine generation.

            I couldn’t disagree more on the assertion that the fix was cheap or simple. Any product “feature” that goes into the wild, in 11 million products of various flavors across the globe would require a colossal testing effort at a bare minimum to make sure that no part of it ever malfunctions, or gives any clues to its illegal nature. That it would work reliably well, during the intended scenarios, and not at any other time. Someone would need to make sure that the “solution” would be designed to work with all emissions testing authorities, small nuances in emissions test harnesses, procedures, and equipment, engine tuners, and dyno shops, or a confluence of factors that no-one could anticipate during the design of this.

            In fact, I am pretty sure that there is a way to experience emissions testing mode out on the road, and perhaps even a way to expose the cheat in the other direction (which is much harder).

          • 0 avatar

            @ Nick, I’m going to change my stance and say that developing the engine management software that has the cheat mode would be significantly easier and thus cheaper than developing a fully compliant version.

            Normally it takes many hours to develop the engine management software.

            With a cheat mode they are free to develop the software that only has to worry about maximizing MPG, power and driveablity. That is much easier than developing software that also has to consider meeting emissions while minimizing impact on MPG, power and driveablity.

            The cheat mode is very simple it uses the existing timer to limit the length of time the test mode runs. It then looks at the steering angle sensor and compares the wheel speed sensor readings to see if the vehicle is on the dyno. Then all they had to do was write a subroutine that ensures emissions compliance with little regard for MPG, power or driveablity. The test is very specific on the operating conditions. A very slight deviance from the drive cycle means that the test is aborted, the vehicle must have another cold soak period before the test can be attempted again. Here is a graph of the main test. and the highway test.

            How CARB was able to find the problem on the dyno was to keep running the test w/o the required soak times. Once they ran it long enough the test mode was exited and the vehicle reverted to the normal mode and the emissions skyrocketed.

            When they pointed that out to VW and demanded that they fix the vehicles VW came up with an extended cheat mode. CARB then tested a vehicle with the “fix” and found that yes it stayed complaint past the normal test length but upon extended testing they still found a point that the vehicle exited the compliant mode and entered the normal mode.

            So it was very simple for CARB to make the vehicle enter the normal operation mode in the lab.

            Now making the vehicle enter the test mode on the road, in the real world would be very difficult.

            The cheat mode relies on detecting that the rear wheel speed sensors are indicating that the rear wheels are stationary while the front wheels are spinning. To do that on the road you would need to remove the reluctors from the rear wheels or otherwise prevent the sensors from “seeing” the motion. You can not just disconnect the sensor since that would make the system detect an circuit fault, set a code and illuminate the ABS light.

            You would also need to drive in a near perfectly straight line for about 11 miles fir the main test. So you would need to find a place where you could leave the vehicle set for the cold soak period where you could then start it and drive it that distance without the need to steer the vehicle onto the roadway.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick Engineer

            “Then all they had to do was write a subroutine that …”

            Large-scale software development is far more complex. This is often how someone who doesn’t understand software (i.e., marketing) or a very inexperienced developer would describe it: “all you have to do is …”

            Any competent engineer can rig up any sensors they need to in order to make the ECU think the rear wheels are stationary and the steering angle remains steady (if that is really all that’s needed, aside from the 11 mile driving profile), and still have a driveable car. It might need to be driven in a closed circuit. There is also the software way of accomplishing the same thing (most control modules have software coding capability). It’s going to require a bit more but all that is routine for engineers when they test prototypes, alphas, betas or live products.

            If you haven’t worked on complex software involving a few million lines of code or more its hard to appreciate the complexity.

        • 0 avatar

          @John T – It’s not a question of whether VW could’ve complied. Except with far less breathtaking fuel economy or power, even if you would breathe far cleaner air. Bigger light duty diesels aren’t as hampered by similar emissions equipment. The economies don’t scale.

      • 0 avatar

        Let’s not go overboard with this “lawbreaking” talk. These are EPA-written regulations approved by the president, not laws enacted or approved by Congress. We’ve elected idiots to Congress for so long that there’s nobody there who can write a clear, concise sentence that doesn’t need clarification. Congress has basically ceded interpretation of its muddled output to the executive branch.

        • 0 avatar

          This is nonsense.

          Regulations have the force of law, that is not even a mildly unsettled issue, as many who have paid civil penalties and done time for crimes for violating regulations can attest.

          The argument above is just so much pin-head dancing, without substance.

    • 0 avatar

      Using the logic presented by Aaron’s article, you can conclude that manufacturers are doing the same cheating with gasoline engines and they just haven’t gone far enough astray to be caught yet.

  • avatar

    Sounds like BS to compare an accidental disastrous error (spaceship O-ring) to a willingful cheating.

    It also ins’t fair to say the German engineers just didn’t understand the test and why it is needed. The EU has similar tests that they cheated as well. Every friggin country nowadays has emission tests that run a standard cycle (and people always will argue it being unrealistic). this is not a German not “getting” the american needs.

    It also is false to assume they got closer and closer with cheating with each iteration of the code. It is not black magic, every engine engineer knows they program timings etc. to get more or less power, improve or make worse mileage, and to improve or make worse emissions. Everybody knew in order to be good in all 3 areas, they need urea tanks, which the competition also used. that is the way to make all 3 happy (emission, power, mileage) at the expense of upfront cost and maintenance (adding of urea). they didn’t step close from low to high emissions, they had two totally opposing target programs that got activated depending on if the car was being tested or not (this is not the correct programming term…)

    Car and engine design isn’t black magic, it is a decision what to prioritize on (same way it is not black magic to produce ignition coils and window switches that last longer than 2 years….).

    and I have evidence of all that. this is a videotape of the VW management meeting:

    • 0 avatar

      “and I have evidence of all that. this is a videotape of the VW management meeting:”

      Hahaha. You made my Sunday morning.

    • 0 avatar

      HerrKaLeun –

      There was nothing accidental and no errors were made with regard to either Challenger or Columbia. The engineering teams, under pressure from management (including Congress) started to accept the normalization of irregularities and downplay the importance of engineering data that showed problems. Under pressure, engineers relented and accepted lower standards even through they knew the data pointed to looming disaster.

      The “mistake” with Challenger was management bullying the engineering and launch team when they all knew doing so broke established rules. This decision was “accepted”, from the top down, because previous launches had demonstrated o-ring burn through without catastrophe, ergo, those anomalies became normalized and accepted. Columbia’s loss was another acceptance of deviation – prior to STS-107 there were dozens of examples of foam shedding from the external tank, most famously on STS-27, a Department of Defense flight that actually demonstrated scorching of the aluminum body after landing due to the amount of damage the orbiter suffered.

      The engineering team wanted to stand down and correct the issue, but it was deemed within ‘acceptable limits’, and once NASA had several dozen flights with less damage from foam shedding, the issue became ‘normalized’.

      Of course, as they say in finance: your trade strategy works….until it doesn’t. Unfortunately, you usually don’t get a heads’ up that your strategy is about to fail you until you lose your shirt.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Agreed. STS-51L and STS-107 were rooted in management pressure on engineers who tried to exercise caution.

        The term I recall from the CAIB report on STS-107 is that the foam impact witnessed during its launch wasn’t “out of family”, and was therefore acceptable. The requests for satellite imagery were denied because they were routed through the wrong chain of command, or around it.

        The shuttle accidents were tragic examples of bumbling and mismanagement, not intentional efforts at deception.

        • 0 avatar

          Comparing the scandal with the space shuttle’s O-rings is too far of a strech. For a good recap of the events, “Degrees of belief” by S. Vick is highly recommended. Any engineer, not just geotech people, should go through this book at least once in their career.

          Decisions made in the build up of the Challenger disaster were forged by a variety of heuristics. At least these decisions were not about cheating emissions for economic gains.

  • avatar

    I’m not buying it. If anything, engineers are the creators of the software and have a sense of ownership. Comparing their actions to stealing downloaded software or music would be like stealing from themselves. Engineers also work to meet (and sometimes exceed) specifications. They do not make up the requirements.

    But if a requirement and the company culture is more about saving money and less about engineering prowess, then O-rings that fail at cold temperatures and diesel engines that fail emissions tests should be expected to happen.

    It’s not the normalization of deviance but the culture of the corporation.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Not to defend VW here,but the EPA has been known to pull data out of their rear ends almost to the same extent as D-grade physics students who went into climate research.

    It would be educational to study 1) the data which went into the standards, and 2) the relationship between that “data” and the realism of the standards.

    No doubt that many of the emissions standards are good, but forget not that the best do not go into government any more… never did.

    Does anyone want to drink water from the Colorado river that the EPA demonstrated their “expertise” on?

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, but the EPA were trying to stop the shit from going into the river in the first place. From the Wikipedia page on the incident …

      “Prior to the spill, the Upper Animas water basin had become devoid of fish, because of the environmental impact of regional mines such as Gold King.”

      Which in your books is fine because business trumps all and the EPA are just a bunch of eggheads who can’t get a better job.

      The EPA screwed up and admitted it, which is more than the mining corporations who created the pollution in the first place (and the local council who refused Superfund cleanup money in case that affected tourism) were willing to do.

  • avatar

    Great analysis. The truth is always a lot more murky and far less clear cut than everyone thinks. Rarely is there an Enronesque smoking gun that points to a specific individual who gave the order or made the covert decision that leads to a disaster. “Normalization of deviance” combined with stereotypical German engineering arrogance lead to small incremental acceptance and rationalization.

    One of the oldest lessons in sales is that humans don’t like to go against the grain or be argumentative. We go along to get along. Smart finance people learned years ago that humans are herd animals. Good marketing people know that the aggregate consumer doesn’t buy on fact, but on emotion – they also know that while people may say they consider themselves unique and individualistic, it’s rare that most consumers will buy something out of the norm – they want to be accepted (Nobody sold a Toyota because it made the buyer feel special and unique…).

    Groupthink, agreeability, go-along to get along. Read Graham Allison’s “Essence of Decision” about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Surprising that engineers, data driven, relatively objective thinking, would fall into this trap, but they are human.

    I’ve read quite a bit about the space program over the decades, especially multiple analyses of both the Challenger and Columbia losses. There are a lot of references to “The Gods of Apollo” who moved from the moon landings to developing the space shuttle: these (primarily men) felt invincible, and as budgets were cut while mission requirements increased (payload size+weight, frequency of launches, cross-range requirements, polar launches, etc.), these engineers found every way imaginable to make things work. Corners get cut, rationalizations are made and a lot of fundamental best practice principles get sidelined in an effort to get the job done.

  • avatar

    Meh to all this brainy stuff…

    I just want the Spiegel articles about mass layoffs and Ingenieurs having to move in with refugees!

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    This has nothing to do with slippery slope. In the shuttle, there was never a bright line where it was clearly “too cold” to launch (actually there was, but they just couldn’t see it). In this case, the engineers clearly crossed the rubicon as soon as the wrote the first line of code to detect whether the vehicle was in an EPA test cycle. There is no legitimate reason for the ECU to know this – it should behave the same whether it is on test or not. I’m sure that once they established a subroutine for test mode, they then went on and repeatedly optimized all the things it was doing in test mode to cut the emissions until test mode was a very elaborate piece of code, but there should never have been a test mode subroutine to begin with.

    Possibly some of the later engineers/software developers who worked on optimizing test mode didn’t even realize what was going on – they may have just thought they were trying to cut emissions and may not have even known what triggered the car into test mode, but whoever wrote the initial code that detected that the vehicle was on a dyno and not on the road (and the higher ups who ordered it) was guilty as hell. “Test mode” (if that is the name they gave it) sounds very innocuous – you can bet they didn’t call it “EPA Cheat mode”.

    Software, with its rigid binary if/then branching logic (and its paper trail of code) does not lend itself at all to slippery slope arguments or to later deniability. Somewhere there is a smoking gun of code that is checking the steering position sensors, etc. to detect that the vehicle is not on the road.

    The analogy to stealing CDs vs. downloading is just a non-sequitur. It has nothing to do with this situation.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, at some point there was a decision made by someone to create the code that detected the vehicle was being run on a dyno in conditions the same or substantially similar to the EPA test cycle and the only reason to do so would be to game the test.

  • avatar

    Or he could’ve just said the TDI cars sucked balls without an off-road tune.

  • avatar
    Nick Engineer

    I read the article on the new yorker site. I am afraid to say it is pure speculation with no data to back it up, and with very little understanding of how engineering organizations work and function (and devolve some times).

    From the article:
    “It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.”

    So, he is basically concluding that VW has an endemic culture of normalizing deviances. If this were indeed the case, similar and perhaps more egregious violations of rules would show up in gas engines, safety systems, and across the rest of their vehicle lineup. This is particularly true because talent gets shuffled around within VAG and group-think gets established as a norm with very little innovation.

    To add to this, any large-scale software engineering project gets defined by all the targets it needs to meet, on all fronts. There are marketing, cost, legal, industry standards, regulatory requirements and everything else in between. There are layers of product and project management with owners attached to each area, and regular (contentious at times) meetings to hash out competing demands. Not to mention that any piece of software will come across several engineering managers who will see it, question it, challenge it, and review it to death. The fact that their supplier warned them of the illegal nature of their sample they requested would immediately trigger urgent meetings with the legal compliance team with very stern consequences.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan R

      I find the supplier warning over the experimental, test nature of the control systems curious.
      Why did they issue such a warning if they believed that the software/computers were for test purposes?
      Why did they then go on to supply 11 million plus of these devices to Volkswagen knowing that they did not comply?

  • avatar

    Geezer Moment:

    The New Yorker article’s feeble rationalizing made me think of Carly Simon’s old ketchup commercial but the audio came out:


    Jeez, now I’m hearing Eleazer Kadile saying
    “It’s not your fault you’re crooked.”

  • avatar

    “At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives.”

    Um, no. Just no.

    The software they were caught with has an extremely specific routine where it checks to see if it is running the EPA mandated test and completely changes all software values. This is a binary case and not something you can “accidentally slide into”. This is also the reason that it *might* just stick to VW (and those using VW engines), such a claim might be true for other companies, but VW has software that could only have been written specifically to cheat.

    The rest of it seems like typical corporate BS. I worked in a fairly large defense corp once (for values of large that include handing every contract to LockMart to be prime) that took this and ran. We were given “ethics training” that was literally the set up for just this occasion. All workers were required to achieve management goals by ethical means. Any issue that might be non-ethical must be reported to the ethics officer* immediately. As long as management can claim that they didn’t specify any non-ethical means of achieving said goals, they are scot free. Note that any worker leaving said corp was *required* to hand in their badge/key and “ethics handbook”. Notebooks, phones, anything else expensive was more or less option, but that “ethics handbook” had better be handed over *now* or *else*. I’m only mildly curious what they thought would be the smoking gun in it, couldn’t imagine it would be worth reading through it (beyond the light skim I did before signing it).

    Just understand that if you are working for a public corporation (even more so if it has been “taken private”), you are working for a psychopath (in action if not literally). Sure, bosses of private firms tend to be pretty hard when their money is on the line, but get a good sized management chain and things go downhill fast.

    *Don’t tell ethics officer about ancient history about corp. president sleeping with underling, firing wife, and promoting underling: she was said underling. She also handled security clearances.

    • 0 avatar

      The large defense corp story sounds familiar. Been at one myself. Lots of ethics training, but the ethics officers ignore reports. We’re talking about fraud on a government contract. These people had all the angles.

      I’m in the same facility with that company at least a couple of times a month. Do not like being near them. Their CEO was there a couple of weeks ago and I did my best to avoid him.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    (click)(read) False equivalency with a heaping helping of projection from the author; nothing to see there.

    This was a case of VW learning from the truck engine scandal in the late 90s and attempting to create a better cheat. When airflow sensors, steering wheel inputs, throttle position and several other factors determined no one was watching/sniffing, then engage super lean cruise mode to prolong trap life and provide lower fuel consumption to the operator.

    The current state of vehicle emissions in North America are low enough you have new automobiles exhausting cleaner air than what was pulled into them in large metropolitan areas. Better to simply push for that level of emissions compliance in countries where rapid market growth threatens to create the same sort of brown clouds which plagued major US cities in the 50s-80s.

    • 0 avatar

      VW also had the US aftermarket and motoring public as an influence. American drivers have been cheating the EPA since it was established. Every single catcon “test pipe”, tube headers without AIR/EGR ports, Trinity Tuners, Bullydogs, DPF delete kits, etc – none of this stuff gets bought to enhance emissions compliance. Nobody gets put out of business, and the only people subject to a fine are mechanics dim-witted enough to take money to install them. Is it inconceivable that VW might have expected the news of their little software gimmick to be received with a collective shrug by their customers?

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        As one who sought out the specific headers and fitting for a proper O2 sensor setup on a project hot rod, along with the integrated controls for matching to transmission and final drive settings, I’m actually surprised there isn’t more push from the aftermarket participants to ensure their products lower emissions while delivering big power. In the decades since I’ve subscribed to the print magazines, I’ve seen the “how to make your ride burn clean” article show up on average every 5th year in print. Sometimes there will be discussions regarding the creation of a racing/off-road tune but they’re always accompanied by “please don’t run this setting on the street” warnings and disclaimers. Most engine builders and tuners these days know you’re crossing the line when the air:fuel mix drops below 14:1 for a street driven vehicle.

        Having grown up on a farm, I believe that’s where diesel belongs along with the obvious exceptions of bulk freight transport via road or rail. The science of creating an optimal fuel burn with gasoline has been established for the better part of 4 decades and the current champions in that arena are impressive indeed. Diesel’s impressive run times seem to stem from a very lean burn which generates high levels of NOX, which may ultimately be harmless on the open road, but poses serious issues in the increasingly crowded metro areas they’re now found in.

        I seriously had not considered the “maybe they just won’t care” angle; when an appeal to conscience is made, it’s hard to imagine risking a backlash especially if bad faith is suspected or discovered.

  • avatar

    Occam’s Razor would suggest that the engineers were expected to design systems that could comply (or appear to comply) with US law on a budget.

    But the budget was too low, so they resorted to cheating.

    The question is what occurred within VW management that motivated the cheating.

    It could be that the engineers were fearful of telling senior management the truth out of fear that they would be the proverbial shot messengers, so they didn’t.

    It could be that the engineers wanted bragging rights that they couldn’t rightfully claim, so they faked it.

    It could be that senior management told them to get the job done in such a way that they could claim plausible deniability. (“We don’t care how you do it, and don’t tell us how you did.”)

    We may never know the truth. But even if there were “rogue” engineers, management is ultimately still responsible for creating a culture that would encourage that type of behavior.

    • 0 avatar

      The engineers did in fact create software that passes emissions. That is the code that runs during the test. And since the EPA fuel economy numbers are derived from the emissions testing, those numbers are what the car should achieve while not cheating. Since they wrote code that passes the test, the additional code for when the car is not being tested had to cost even more money. So I don’t think budget was the issue – at least coding budget.

      So the question is, what are they avoiding by cheating and not using that code all the time? Presumably some slightly lowered performance, higher DEF fluid consumption in those cars so equipped, and more wear and tear on the (admittedly very expensive) particulate trap. I suppose having to burn off particulates more often will increase real-world consumption in a way not reflected in the test, since I assume the test does not require this to happen. Seems to me that bragging rights and maybe warranty costs were the motivations?

      If CU’s testing is to be believed, the affects of this cheat are hardly draconian. The cars go down to EPA mileage (as expected), and were something less than a second slower 0-60. The whole thing really baffles me.

      • 0 avatar

        My theory is they wanted to bring in the TDI as a Prius alternative. The engineers were given price and performance objectives to meet; adding the DEF injection put them over the cost target, running in clean mode made them miss the performance goal.

        • 0 avatar
          George B

          jpolicke, I too blame the marketing goals of “Clean Diesel”. I bet Volkswagen engineers initially offered a choice between the “Malaise Era” solution of reduced performance or the expensive solution of urea injection and Volkswagen management rejected both. When Volkswagen’s own engineers didn’t provide the result management needed, someone chose explicit cheating over normal gaming of the rules. There was probably a Euro 5 non-CARB compromise that barely passed the easier emissions requirements excluding California, but management wanted a story of how “green” TDI was.

      • 0 avatar

        The independent tests found that the cars were allegedly producing the same levels of NOx when cold as they were when they were hot. That makes no sense, as cars produce more NOx when cold because the catalytic converter hasn’t yet warmed up.

        That would suggest that the software was simply producing bogus numbers that the regulators were using to calculate emissions. They gave the OEMs the benefit of the doubt that the readings could be trusted.

        One budgetary problem is that adding the urea system and higher grade catalytic converters needed to reduce NOx adds costs that cannot be passed on to the customer. So if the system adds a few hundred bucks to the cost of assembly, then each of those dollars comes out of VW’s pocket, as customers won’t pay for it.

        Another budgetary problem was that it wasn’t necessary under Euro 5 to have a urea system, as the allowable NOx was considerably higher than what the US would accept. I would expect that VW did not want to produce a special US-spec engine, as did GM found to be necessary with the diesel Cruze. VW could save money by making one motor instead of two, and it could save money by not installing extra equipment on non-US vehicles that did not mandate it.

        There was probably enormous pressure on the engineers to produce a US-market motor that was not considerably different from the European version. And that’s where much of the problem would come from — telling management something that they didn’t want to hear would produce blowback for the engineers, nor would anyone be inclined to tell management that the added costs of US compliance would torpedo VW’s diesel business plan.

  • avatar

    “Stealing CDs from stores feels like theft”

    Yes, but copying CDs and tapes never felt like theft. Because it isn’t. No property is stolen or appropriated. Copyrights are infringed, but no theft happens.

  • avatar

    Didn’t we hear that before back in 1974 with executive privilege? You know that its okay to bend the rules.

  • avatar

    I call this error of thinking:

    “Nothing can go wrong in the future,
    because nothing went wrong in the past.”

    • 0 avatar

      Such is the nature of conspiracy and fraudulent activities: the initial fraud may begin small but is effective (in producing results while not being detected), such that addiction occurs (do it again, do it more, we can’t be caught) with the cycle repeating until it is so large or frequent that it becomes exposed via external events or suspicions (or the talking, for whatever reason, of a co-conspirator.)

  • avatar

    It’s simple,
    You have three choices;
    1. Faster
    2. Cheaper
    3. Better
    You get to pick two of the choices. And in a company dominated by cost-cutters, it’s easy to guess what choices were made. VW is not unique.

  • avatar

    Why every time Germans deservedly coming close to the world domination something catastrophically bad happens? Why the coldest winter in Russian history happened the same year when Germans were just one step away from beating Russia into submission and establishing thousand year Reich? Eventually though they took over Europe but still it is not the whole world.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Because catastrophically bad always happens unexpectedly. There’s something about Germans that makes them choose the solution that’s optimum if everything goes right over the sub-optimum choice that’s very resilient in the event things go wrong. If you really want to p!ss off a German, talk to him about doing a GM LS V8 engine swap into a BMW to make it faster and more reliable. Add a comment about no replacement for displacement to kick the argument into overdrive. Throw in an observation that some really good tasting beer includes ingredients Germans don’t approve of to kick things up to “nuclear”.

    • 0 avatar

      Correction to my “Eventually though they took over Europe” statement in my previous post – German Thousand year Reich in Europe lasted only for few decades – German Reich is falling apart. The Greece default combined with millions of refugees-future terrorists and Ukraine fiasco are bringing down carefully designed Reich. The same way as Russian “Third Rome” fall apart in 80s.

  • avatar

    I’m a little bit skeptical of Kedrosky’s analysis. He calls it an “engineering theory”, yet Kedrosky (who holds an undergrad degree in engineering with advanced degrees in business) bases most of it on a sociologist’s view of the Challenger disaster, with apparently no insider knowledge of what went on inside VW besides what’s been published in the German media.

    I wonder how much the New Yorker pays for 1,000 words of speculation. Maybe I’m in the wrong business.

  • avatar

    Maybe normalization of deviance happens in a slightly different way.

    I purchased the APR tune for my TDI that increased its torque and horsepower. As Hitler says in the video, “fun to drive!” Interestingly enough, only on the TDI did VW employ some sort of ECU copy protection so you can’t just reprogram the car using the OBD-II port, you have to physically modify the ECU board to install it. I always wondered what that was about.

    As many of you know, APR has a software switch employing the cruise control that you can use to put the software back to the factory original. Just in case your nostalgia kicks in and you want to experience what the original 140HP felt like. Uh, not really. Of course the real reason this switch exists is to reset the software before getting a smog check. And of course I set it back to APR mode immediately after my car passed. Supposedly it would pass on its own otherwise CARB wouldn’t have approved APR’s tune for sale. (Of course now we know how that magic happened. I wonder if APR knew exactly what was going on.)

    Evading emissions testing is not a behavior limited to VW engineers. Anyone with a slightly modified car in California thinks about it all the time. Software happens to make it very easy. Software makes many “deviant” things very easy. That was the point of the article. Just because VW’s programming was deliberate doesn’t mean it wasn’t as easy to choose as downloading an MP3.

  • avatar

    Public Safety Advisory


    If you’re like me and always make popcorn for the latest tranche of Dieselgate updates you may have run out of your preferred popcorn oil and been tempted to substitute another oil of different viscosity.


    This could result in a serious mofo of a cleaning task as well as a ruined batch of burned, runty kernels.

    Please Pop Responsibly

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    In engineering there can only be one of two outcomes, violation or error.

    I do investigate engineering deficiencies as part of my job in the aviation industry. First and importantly the person who conducts the investigation must be independent of the people and the task/project.

    I do believe that the Space Shuttle O ring incident was an error induced whilst attempting to reduce resources (money) to operate the Shuttle.

    When cost cutting occurs new processes and procedures must be generated. If the integrity of these new processes and procedures are not evaluated effectively catastrophic incidents can occur, as in the Space Shuttle.

    VW on the other hand purposely went out to save resources (money) by circumventing regulatory requirements. I worked out VW had saved over $3 billion dollars with this cheat. That is only the savings on the additional emissions equipment required.

    A lot more money was saved by not having to design a new engine.

    So, VW has saved big bucks in anyone’s language.

    The motive to VW was money and greed, whereas the driver (which is different than motive) for the Space Shuttle was money, but not profit.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen similar behavior, but my industry is quite different from the auto industry, and my business is different than VW. I won’t assume that this explains their actions, but it a decent theory to investigate.

  • avatar

    As a lawyer, I worked on a case for clients who had a problem with their brand new 2013 VW Sportwagen diesel. As it so happened virtually all of their driving was very short drives at low speeds, not an average driving routine, but within the range of normal. With this driving, the DPF (diesel particulate filter) that the emissions system relied upon could not regenerate. Owners who have this type of driving have two options, they can periodically drive the car at higher speeds and for longer duration just to regenerate the DPF, wasting time and fuel, or they can replace emissions components frequently at high costs and face near-constant dash lights about problems with the emissions system. My clients rejected the car as being unmerchantable under the Uniform Commercial Code, because it was unfit for its ordinary purpose when it had to be driven regularly at certain speeds just to clear the DPF, especially when the car is being sold for its fuel economy and this driving serves no other purpose. We never got close to determining whether that theory would hold up in court as other issues in the case took over, and the case was eventually settled. The case left me with the opinion that DPF is not a good system for a passenger car diesel. It doesn’t surprise me that we now find out that these engines can’t meet emissions specs except under specific circumstances since during light driving for a surprisingly few thousand miles the system can’t keep functioning at all. Urea-based systems seem better, but I haven’t had a lot of contact with them.

  • avatar

    I hope Mr. Kedrosky got paid well for his article. It’s difficult to conceive of anyone taking it seriously, except, maybe – his mother.

  • avatar

    The article referred to is nothing but a bunch of speculation based on no actual research or evidence.

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