Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Volkwagen and the Blame The Engineer Game

Volkwagen is a house in deep trouble. The dieselgate scandal just doesn’t seem to go away and even though the company is now under new management it seems that things are getting worse and worse as time goes by. What I really don’t get is this: Does Volkswagen actually believe the nonsense that they put out in order to try to do damage control?

A nice sample of The VW reality distortion field at work is here. The central element of that article is that VW engineers decided to cheat because they could not find a way to comply with the high standards of the United States when it came to diesel emissions.

But that argument holds no water at all. Let me try to explain why: In any large organization that has to comply with external standards and regulation there is such a thing as a compliance department. The whole reason this department exists in the first place is to make sure that the products manufacturered by the company and indeed, the company itself and its papertrail all adhere to the law in order to protect the company from liability (number of products sold * maximum fine can be an existential threat even for an entity as large as a car manufacturer). This can be quite an undertaking for a company the size of VW and because it is such an important thing companies this size are super careful to make sure that the people in charge of compliance are not the same people that are in charge of engineering and that the people doing the compliance verification are not the same people that designed the stuff in the first place.

All manner of methods are employed to make sure that the company products are compliant, including periodical checks on specific products, independent review using independent laboratories (outsiders) where possible and so on. So it is patently un-thinkable that VW engineers by their lonesome could come up with a way to cheat on the United States emissions testing and that this would happen (1) without express orders to do so from above, (2) without managerial insight into this decision and (3) without the compliance department and all outside verification labs being in cahoots.

The practical upshot of the above - to me - is that apparently even the current management of VW can still not be trusted to speak the truth on this issue. The only alternative explanation (and one that is even more worrisome) is that the entire compliance department and the entire management of VW were so dangerously incompetent that they allowed a situation like this to come into being, exist for several years and required an outside party to bring to light. Brands are all about trust, and VW seems to have decided that the trust in its brand is worth less than the reputation of the former managers that must have known that this was going on. There is no way both engineering and compliance are so clever that they can do an end-run around management to pretend to comply with a bunch of laws they have no reason to circumvent in the first place. They simply don’t have any incentive to do so (and in the case of the compliance department a dis-incentive, it’s their job to be rigid in situations like these). And for those unfamiliar with German corporate culture: it is also just about unthinkable that the compliance department would allow itself to be pressured without orders ‘from on high’.

Blame the engineers might seem like a good idea in a boardroom far removed from reality but engineers have no financial stake in cheating, to them writing software that works and writing software that cheats is all the same and an engineer that you present with an impossible job is just going to return the job and say ‘this is impossible’, knowing full well that if they cheat the compliance department will catch them anyway. So the only way this ‘cheat’ would have worked is if someone right from the top would have bludgeoned the compliance department into submission about turning a blind eye when it came to their own in house verification that the engines produced indeed met the standards. And if it would have been ‘too close to call’ that might have been believable but we’re talking orders of magnitude more emissions than those allowed. The company claims that 450 people were involved in the dieselgate affair but somehow management never got wind of this, nobody of those 450 people decided to tip them off that this was going down and management was entirely blindsided by the announcement. I find that extremely hard to believe, there is no way that a company this size engages in such levels of deception without orders straight from the top.

Until the moment VW admits to either gross incompetence or managerial involvement I’m not going to believe another word they say on this whole affair, they’ve lost each and every bit of credibility they had.

Update: HN user PeterStuer presented this document from 1998 detailing test cycle detection and circumvention on the transportenvironment.org website. Given that this information has been out in the wild for 17 whole years it is absolutely impossible that VW did this without knowing that it was happening. Any car manufacturer should have standing orders to their tech staff including programmers and other people involved in product development that test detection software is absolutely un-acceptable and the code produced should be audited to make sure that such software is not shipped in vehicles intended for testing by regulators or products shipped to consumers.