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Sunday, 27 September 2015

Does the car industry lack a fundamental sense of honesty and decency? After looking at it in 2015, one might very well think so!

Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” seems only the tip of the iceberg regarding embedded engine kernel software being rigged on purpose; many more famous car brands might have followed in their footsteps. GM, on the other hand, seemed to have proven once again that saving money is more important than saving lives!

It wears you thin
Unpacks a bag and it settles in
Ten times an hour you'll wish it dead
Ask it to leave but it stays instead

It was the miracle of the (European, Far Eastern and to a lesser degree the US) car industry during the last three decades. Not only did the cars get faster and more frugal in their fuel consumption, in spite of their heavier weight and increased electricity consumption – laden with airconditioning and electronic gadgets as they were – but they also got cleaner by the year.

Especially the infamous diesel engine, in the eighties especially notorious for the clouds of black smoke that it spread in case of being poorly adjusted, turned into an “environmentally friendly” Juggernaut that crushed its gasoline-driven competition among the European corporate drivers.

In the Seventies of the last century, the European diesel was a car for patient sales agents that devoured kilometers like a box of chocolates and did not mind accelerating from nought to one hundred kilometers per hour in 27 seconds (!), as their low fuel bills made them smile the whole way.

However, the successful and ubiquitous introduction of turbo technology for diesels in the Eighties and the invention of the common rail diesel engine in the Nineties changed the diesel car from 'a gouty slug' spreading black smokescreens, into a racemonster that showed many gasoline cars its tail lights. And the diesel fuel was still sipped away at a very low pace, thus offering enormous value for money.

And the best thing was: during the last decade diesel engines became really, really clean, with respect to their exhaust of soot and nitrous oxide emissions. This was due to the introduction of better catalysts and various new technologies which reduced the harmful exhaust of especially fine-particled soot (i.e. Volkswagen's 'blue motion' and similar technologies from the other brands). At least, according to the laboratory test results of the well-respected German premium car brands, like Daimler-Benz, BMW, the Volkswagen Audi Group and Opel (GM)…

I myself – a genuine petrolhead and avid diesel car driver with at least 30,000 km per year every year – was one of those suckers that believed in the fairytale of the ever-cleaner diesel engine; probably because I wanted to believe it…  And also because I consider electric cars to be “sewing machines on steroids”, with in general the charisma of a pile of concrete mortar.

Fortunately, a bunch of European and American researchers did not take the cheerful stories of the large car brands for granted regarding the exhaust, but decided instead to take the bull by the horns. Their curiosity and perserverance led to one of the biggest scandals in the contemporary car industry. The following snippets are from Bloomberg.

VW's Emissions Cheating Found by Curious Clean-Air Group

It didn’t add up. The Volkswagens were spewing harmful exhaust when testers drove them on the road. In the lab, they were fine.

Discrepancies in the European tests on the diesel models of the VW Passat, the VW Jetta and the BMW X5 last year gave Peter Mock an idea.

Mock, European managing director of a little-known clean-air group, suggested replicating the tests in the U.S. The U.S. has higher emissions standards than the rest of the world and a history of enforcing them, so Mock and his American counterpart, John German, were sure the U.S. versions of the vehicles would pass the emissions tests, German said. That way, they reasoned, they could show Europeans it was possible for diesel cars to run clean.

 “We had no cause for suspicion,” German, U.S. co-lead of the International Council on Clean Transportation, said in an interview. “We thought the vehicles would be clean.”
So began a series of events that resulted in Volkswagen AG admitting that it built “defeat device” software into a half-million of its diesel cars from 2009 to 2015 that automatically cheated on U.S. air-pollution tests. The world’s second-biggest carmaker now faces billions in fines, possible jail time for its executives and the undoing of its U.S. expansion plans.

“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn said in a statement on Sunday. “We will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused.”

The whole Bloomberg story reads like a detective novel and I deeply admire these researchers and testers for their astonishing results. While these days a host of people are shouting from every corner `I have already been telling this for years…`, it is an undeniable fact that no car brand had been caught earlier with its hands in the cookie jar.

And as an ICT consultant and software tester, I have to reluctantly admire – against all my instincts and sense of fairness and justice – the cunningness of the VW scheme, to embed software in their engine kernels that yields a perfectly clean engine in the laboratory and a very quick one in the field.

But now, while VW has been firmly put in the pillory, with its CEO Martin Winterkorn as the first one in a presumably long, long line of VW executive managers to hit the road, the suspicion mounts that this rigging of engine kernel software has been common practice among many renowned brands in the car industry: “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

I suspect that the combination of a very powerful road car under all circumstances and an extremely clean diesel engine at the same time, was just ‘too big a bite to chew’ for many car brands. And if a car brand can’t win the battle against the competition and the (supra)national authorities fair and square, then they try to win it while cheating: hence the rigged software...  

Just like CERA, EPO, steroids and other specialized doping drugs forced non-users in the bicycle racing sport to become users after all, if they ever wanted to win a bicycle race again, so might it probably have been in the car industry too with the international requirements regarding clean engines.

Summarized, the whole story is probably: 

Yes, we can build an engine as clean as international regulators require, but it will drive like a ninety year-old lady. Our drivers don’t want such an engine and they will cry for their mothers if we give them one anyway. 

Instead, we rig the engine kernel software, so it will run like the old lady in the laboratory, while being clean as a whistle. On the road, we turn the software into Ayrton Senna mode, in order to make our drivers enthusiastic. And then the engine will be a teeny weeny bit less clean. Nobody knows and everybody is happy, right?! Who cares anyway?!”

Yet, the increasingly painful question remains for me, after Volkswagen’s ordeal and (probably) just before a much broader scandal regarding rigged engine software rocks the whole car industry on its feet, is whether this industry totally lacks a fundamental sense of honesty and decency?!

A little bit older news and now being snowed under in the tidal wave of VW news is the fact that GM established a multi million dollar compensation fund for the damages caused by “ignition key-gate”: a scandal in which built-in flaws in various ignition key types caused GM cars to stop running, as well as power steering and brake assisters to stop working, at the most undesirable and dangerous moments. The sad balance: hundreds of dead drivers and passengers and probably much more dangerously injured drivers and passengers.

And that all for the purpose of saving a few cents on the price of a flawlessly working ignition key. The following story is also from Bloomberg. Here are a few snippets:

Hurt or Killed in Cars With Switch Flaw

Last year, GM agreed to compensate victims killed or hurt when an ignition switch shut off accidentally and cut power to the brakes and steering, a defect hidden from the public for more than a decade. But the compensation fund covers only 2.59 million vehicles with that specific flaw. GM says a similar defect subsequently detected in an additional 10 million vehicles, including the model Pillars’s wife was driving, is ineligible for compensation because the company recalled the cars immediately after discovering the flaw and because employees made no efforts to keep it under wraps.

After recalling the original 2.59 million vehicles last year, GM checked all models for ignition-related issues, GM spokesman Alan Adler said in an e-mail. If a model failed one of eight tests it was recalled, he said. By the end of June 2014, GM had recalled an additional 10 million vehicles for defective ignition switches.

In comparison with the United States, cars in Europe (especially the `challenged`German ones, but also cars from the other EU countries, the Far East and the US) are extremely expensive. This is partially caused by the generally much higher purchase taxes and conveyance duties, but first and foremost due to the higher building standards and building costs of especially European cars.

The American car market, however, is – in my humble opinion – rather a dog-eat-dog market, with in comparison very low purchase prices for cars and a much more limited number of national suppliers. This fierce competition for the sheer sales numbers probably forces the most important US car brands to fight for the last cent in order to keep their prices competitive. Therefore cheaper parts and materials are mounted in US cars, to keep prices as low as possible.

The aforementioned higher European purchase prices, on the other hand, offer the leeway for European brands to user structurally better materials and parts for the interior, exterior, cockpit and electronics of the cars. A €20 key ignition switch makes a Mercedes or a BMW not much more expensive, in comparison with the already very high purchase price, so these brands mount the expensive ones that do not cause any problems. 

Although European cars – even the premium brands – also had their share of recall actions of late, it is therefore hard to believe that such a clumsy and yet extremely dangerous flaw, like the one in the ignition key switch, could hang in there for more than ten years in the European market, without being put into the open. Yet, that is exactly what happened in the US domestic market with GM cars.

I believe that 2015 must become a turning point for the largest car brands as we know them and that the whole car industry must go through a paradigm shift, in which the environment, the abolishment of fossile fuels and the safety of cars become centralized issues.

Car brands should stop cheating with their exhaust emissions and they should stop keeping silent about possibly deadly problems in their cars, or else the competition from other countries and other sources might wipe them away within a few years.

When a guy like Elon Musk could establish Tesla Motors and bring it to fame within little more than ten years, so can others. And the more scandals surround the classic car fuels, like gasoline, lpg and diesel oil, the bigger the chance is that modern “fuels” like hydrogen and electricity will win the rat race within the car industry. 

Engines using these energy sources might do so, being mounted in car brands of which nobody has heard yet… and with ignition switches that work flawlessly… every time all the time.

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