Columnist: 'Normalization of Deviance' Led to Volkswagen Cheating

Aaron Cole
by Aaron Cole

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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2 of 62 comments
  • John John on Oct 19, 2015

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

  • Jthorner Jthorner on Oct 20, 2015

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

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