What went wrong at Volkswagen?

Volkswagen has been cheating in emission tests by making its cars appear far less polluting than they are. The US Environmental Protection Agency discovered that 482,000 VW diesel cars on American roads were emitting up to 40 times more toxic fumes than permitted – and VW has since admitted the cheat affects 11m cars worldwide.

 The diesel-powered Bentley is produced by VW
The diesel-powered Bentley is produced by VW

So now the company is in high-level damage control.

There a number of interesting questions.

The first is, How on earth did they think there were going to get away with this?

Someone at VW must have suggested that sooner or later an environmental protection authority was likely to uncover the deception. Later rather than sooner as it would appear that 482,000 cars got through the American system.

So the second question is: How did this happen?

It’s reasonable to argue that the more people who knew about this the more likely it was that someone would say “This is not on. We will get caught and the fallout will be catastrophic”.

So one possible explanation is that there was a small group of software engineers inside VW’s emissions control department who convinced themselves that they could get away with this.  It’s a phenomenon known as Group Think where highly cohesive and successful groups become incapable of critical self-examination and consequently make highly dysfunctional decisions.

It’s difficult to know how many people would be involved  but presumably if there’s someone senior enough to a ride shotgun then the group of software engineers could be very small.

So the first explanation is: A small rogue group within Volkswagen.

A second and closely related explanation is that within the emissions control department there was an awareness that the diesel engines would not, and could not ever, meet emission standards in Europe and in America and, that to avoid jeopardising the sale of nearly 11,000,000 cars, something drastic had to be done.

So the second explanation is: An official and sanctioned program at a departmental level.

The third explanation is that the instructions to put that masking software into the cars came from the top where the practice was condoned and encouraged.  It was corporate fraud on a staggering scale.

It may be that in a corporate culture with technological advances are closely guarded and secret, it was possible to protect the software from any internal audit processes.

So the third and final question is: Given that number of other companies produce diesel engines and it would appear that the technology does not allow these engines to meet emission standards, how many other companies have been engaged in this deception?

According to The Age it’s about diesel engines (rather than about Volkswagen): diesel engines were performing so badly on the tests that VW engineers had to look for a workaround so marketers could trumpet the advent of “clean” diesel.

It would appear that currently most producers of diesel engines are meeting the emission standards with diesel engine technology that does not appear  capable of meeting those standards.

So it’s probably reasonable to assume that the software is present in a large number of diesel engined motorcars.

At Volkswagen the purge has began.

At Volkswagen has appointed a new chief executive to deal with the emissions cheating scandal that has engulfed the German car company.

Matthias Mueller, the head of VW’s Porsche unit, replaces former long-time chief executive Martin Winterkorn who quit earlier this week soon after the scandal involving diesel cars unfolded.

So we can expect much more of the “we have found the people responsible and sacked them” rather than an admission that this is a deep-seated cultural problem that affects the entire company.

"I am shocked by the events of the past few days," said Volkswagen's ex-chief executive Martin Winterkorn
“I am shocked by the events of the past few days,” said Volkswagen’s ex-chief executive Martin Winterkorn

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