- The majority of car enthusiasts care more about engine power than pollution. This especially rings true in America where consumers can easily modify hardware and software of their diesel engines. Ten minutes and a couple hundred dollars makes a significant change. Thus it has become common to find consumers seeking personal power gains with little/no concern for environmental impact.
- Since the late 1940s US federal and state regulatory authorities have set standards and brought action against companies to help the market bear its responsibility for environmental impact. Consumers also increasingly have had to prove ongoing compliance with standards through smog tests linked to vehicle license. The growth of an engine tuning market for power, accelerated by the openness of car software, has forced regulators to crack down on manufacturers as well as move towards greater surveillance of consumers. The latter is less necessary and complex if the former is successful. The gap between demand and responsibility is a key to the issue. People often say “no one has died” regarding engine design despite the fact we know pollution kills and has killed (~58,000 premature American deaths per year).
- VW was caught giving what most American consumers say they want most, more power. In some sense VW built into their cars before sale what many were doing after sales, which is a common practice. Over 480K cars were illegally fitted with the kind of “clean defeat” practice known to exist at a much larger scale on many more manufacturers led by an emerging “performance” industry. VW happens to have been the largest and most obvious violator caught, which makes it a perfect candidate for heavy regulatory enforcement. Used as a high-profile example, regulators may be able to use this example to shift consumer demand and raise awareness of pollution risk (including fines). US action against a German company also has geopolitical implications.
- Last but not least, the cheat was unnecessary. VW product managers presumably rushed to market a bolt-on fix rather than a built-in solution. The company could have used a diesel-electric hybrid approach to achieve more power while reducing emissions, as shown with Toyota long-term success in the American market. Worse, VW left the cheats in their newer VW EA288 2L diesel that replaced the “cheater” VW EA188, despite the fact it arguably would be emission compliant anyway using urea injection technology.
Hello diesel fans, welcome back for another post on why diesel is the future of engine technology. Remember when I wrote about NASCAR cheating and included this 1976 quip from Waltrip?
If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot; if you cheat and don’t get caught, you look like a hero; if you cheat and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me where I belong.
Fast forward almost 50 years and here we are still are talking about cheating to improve engine performance.
Since 2005 you’ve maybe known me to rant about the need for cleaner more-efficient engines and better regulation to make that happen. (e.g. Top Diesel Myths and Why Diesel Hybrids Make Perfect Sense, 2012).
After the VW trivial hack (detect front wheel movement during change in RPM) to cheat regulations I’m even more bullish on diesel and here’s why:
It’s about damn time
First, this government crackdown has been long-overdue and in the works for decades. You know the transportation and automobile lobby finally is losing the dirty fight when the EPA makes this kind of clean success story stick. It seems to me California led since 2000 and took the brunt of counter-attack from those engine enthusiasts who hate being clean.
Anyone who thinks this VW catastrophe is about VW probably does not spend much time tinkering with engines or watch closely all the fighting in the diesel market. Let me be clear here, VW was a business giving the majority consumers exactly what they wanted. And like any very large company it used its size and power to influence governance.
I’ve highlighted some things in an old advertisement here to make it more clear how the spin worked.
Even I have fallen victim to trying to promote power of diesel to make it more appealing (many blog posts in the past about diesel power being a factor).
And that’s a big insight into why this isn’t really about VW. America has a hard time speaking directly to a clean consumer segment; a small, although arguably fast growing, group of people who don’t give a crap about performance when they ask for a clean air car.
Some point to a fact that VW was running ads boasting about achieving the regulatory definitions of clean. That doesn’t mean for a second they cared. It could be they were just following regulators’ lead, talking the talk, playing the game and throwing a few dollars at some words and pictures. The American car companies’ Flex-Fuel campaign is a great example of marketing double-speak that tells insiders at least one car company still doesn’t care about the environment.
Flex fuel: car makers’ way of thumbing their nose at regulations and saying “stop asking, we still don’t care about pollution”. (Sierra Club and Bluewater Network sued to force compliance and reduce gasoline dependence. Detroit smugly responded by delivering much larger engines with higher gasoline consumption)
If you want to get angry about bogus environmental advertising take a swing first at Ford, then BMW, and then…. We have some positive examples too, that suggest clean marketing can be woven into a campaign.
The Prius was introduced by American mavericks in the Japanese Toyota executive office who wanted to test a theory. It was not a customer-driven decision, as I mentioned here in 2006. Most revealing was how clean themes actually took a back-seat to what Toyota really used to push sales:
…the answer lies in Toyota’s clever marketing campaign. To begin with, it wasn’t aimed at the mass market. Instead, Toyota thought that the first hybrid buyers would be “techies” and early adopters (people who are highly likely to buy something just because it’s new).
Americans love early cool tech. They also love luxury. And despite loving power, it was absent from the Prius campaign. You had to look at a Camry for that stuff. The environmental campaign was infused rather than dominant in the carefully targeted Prius themes. Kudos to the late great executive who pushed Japanese sensibility into our thick American tuner heads.
Ok, ok, I’m not being fair to myself or others. Those of us who long pined for environmental improvements in engines just might have grown jaded after seeing twists and turns the product managers used to delay our clean dreams. We found ourselves characterized as a small peanut gallery watching from the outskirts of the big power demonstrations that the “majority” wanted.
Calling for clean diesel regulation has felt a bit like sitting on the sidewalk eating a leafy salad watching the crowds line-up for chemically-enhanced performance-oriented meals in a brightly colored restaurant (i.e.adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to achieve fastest food).
While it is true reading ingredients in a McDonalds Happy Meal might give information to be safer what we really need is regulators or a lawyer in Marin to push for a social norm that even late night talk show hosts can get behind and promote to the majority. Reading ingredients doesn’t do much good if we haven’t fundamentally shifted consumption preferences.
Or let me put it this way: when I was told I could participate in a corporate-sponsored race car event I immediately started asking about how we would measure and explain pollution hitting the crowds. Knowing that cars emitted harmful poisons was insufficient, I needed to get people to question whether we really intended to poison our VIP customers. Unsurprisingly, as those around me sipped their well-labeled alcohol and ate their sugary snacks that clearly listed all the ingredients, they didn’t really see what I was so concerned about.
Later I found myself in an even bigger “our future is data-driven” corporate-marketing event focused on race cars. I asked an Indy car team manager what the brake dust and tire wear meant for people standing near the track. “No idea” was the answer. And years later I asked a F1 team the same. Same answer. Some future. Data data everywhere and not a person who, despite having access to learn about harms, wanted to alter car culture towards being safer.
The point here, after saying this is not really about VW, is that it also is not about openness and transparency of the software. Openness isn’t the fundamental problem in the case of diesel emissions cheating. The real key to driving change is a push from regulators and to create the right pull from consumers; nudge economics is what I’ve heard it called lately.
Being a minority in trying to figure out the push/pull on majority risk issues should surprise no one working in the security industry. It is basically what we’re paid to do. Nonetheless sometimes there are twists we don’t anticipate as these socio political things are hard. The other day I found this curious notice from a security software organization:
A notice by Whisper Systems, considered by some a leader in security software, said majority concerns come first and consumers must swallow their closed sole-source manufacturer distribution channel.
Open WhisperSystems has chosen to focus on serving the millions of users who have GCM capabilities before turning our attention to the small number of users who refuse to install Google Mobile Services. We understand that this is an important issue for some of our users and have our support forum available for discussions.
The arguments used by WhisperSystems to justify this position simply is not true. And they’re telling us being small is why we’re lower priority? The number of privacy-enhancing software use overall is small, so should on that measure alone Google turn their attention elsewhere first? Hey Google, maybe you should start ignoring WhisperSystems because they are only a small number of people who refuse to just be happy with default apps provided by Google.
No I think size is not the right measure to start and end with. Other measures of priority are useful.
Sorry, I digress…let us go back to talking about VW, a software company using false statements to justify their position to appease the majority with a closed sole-source manufacturer distribution channel. Oh, wait a minute.
But seriously, let’s go even further back to regulators stepping in to shape the diesel market and consumer demands. The emissions debacle is really about regulators working over a long time to clean the air. They had to choose targets wisely (deep pockets from large numbers of consumer vehicle sales) and massage timing (emerging shift in public opinion based on solid grains of truth) to move a market after it refused to go cleaner on its own.
The fact that VW didn’t see this coming and thought they could cheat regs, or wait for a GOP victory that would weaken the EPA or worse, is just sad management. Fire that CEO for being out of the loop on political winds that in reality are directed towards everyone but start with the biggest and most useful example. VW deserves the book thrown at them because that’s how this game works. We make an example to educate others and VW had its neck out, way out, the wrong direction.
To really put the game in perspective, don’t forget Ford dumped their CEO after he called for a clean car revolution. Put that in your carburetor and smoke it for a bit. A major car manufacturing board kicked out a CEO who wanted to go clean. Easy to see how VW executives thought cheating with dirty cars would help them fit right into the market, get a nod and a wink rather than a fine.
Except there was a slight problem. They underestimated the importance of a minority voice and opinion.
Here’s the real choice, which apparently they did not see. Either you clean up diesel like we know can be done (gasoline cleaned up and thrived) or you become an example of why actually you have no choice. Too many decades passed when we let the establishment give empty promises and shallow marketing about flex fuel, yada yada. Clean up your engines or we’ll disrupt this market so hard small new-comers can jump in to compete and sell a proper clean product, verstanden sie?
Look closely at 2005 as a huge turning point. California regulators (and NY and some other states of little sales numbers) basically ruled VW out of the market. Cold. No more diesels could be sold by VW. They were nailed, while at the same time the majority of other polluting diesels were given a pass.
I have yet to see any pundits bring this seminal point into focus on today’s news. Watching this fight for decades obviously puts things in a different perspective. Having been a long-time diesel tuner and having made my own diesel fuel I have a few dozens of blog posts related to this topic.
Politics ten years ago proved VW was the easy target to initiate a clean air battle, despite American trucks going on and on spewing poison all around us. That is a key to unlock the context for recent news. VW consumer cars could not emit a “we must pollute to survive” excuse as easily as a Caterpillar, Ford or Kenworth.
2010 was another massive turning point when California applied smog tests to diesels. Even I was shocked when I received my first letter from the state. We all should have seen coming yet I confess, I have to admit, I was amazed the day finally came in 2010 when I had to test my diesel. And I was proud that all my tinkering did not reduce clean.
The regulators slowly were winning these small battles in small markets to test attack methods and gear up for a major war against big air polluters. They were wise. And so at long last, after decades of waiting, here we are…thank you thank you EPA.
Grains of truth
Second, it’s really about the engineering facts. With diesel a smaller engine produces more power, more cleanly, more efficiently from more renewable sources of energy than any of its competitors.
A diesel was not intended to run on petroleum, it was designed to do the exact opposite and free owners from sole-source energy. The petroleum industry bastardized the original diesel design, making it run on their product, which is a disgrace to engineering.
I just have to get this out of the way. Measuring diesels today on petroleum fuel is, albeit necessary because history, technically a petroleum industry’s trick. Don’t fall for it. We really should be testing the latest engines on multiple sources.
Let me present the amazing Subaru STI-D (2008 or even better 2011) as an example of what every American today should be looking for in their next vehicle:
And now let me put this in context. That little tiny light engine is hugely powerful (380 lb-ft torque) while being compliant with the EuroV emissions requirements.
Fantastic progress. As an aside did you know that gasoline engines were not tested at all for particulate matter until EuroV? Shocking. So while lots of writers have jumped on VW to complain about shameful cheating to squeeze under tightening PM filtering rules, they say nothing about gasoline engines not being tested at all. Meh.
Even more to that point the people racing tend to brag about not having to be compliant with any smog requirements at all because they found “exemption” loopholes. Here’s a Subaru diesel racer proudly spewing horrible PM: Jump to 0:53
I see this nearly EVERY DAY from other engine tuners. It’s a hugely widespread problem. Truck drivers might even be the worst and most prevalent. The people gearing and wrenching just don’t talk like they are worried about being clean until regulators clamp down. A big cheater take down is a much easier way to shift majority sentiment than trying to go after every little tuner.
In 2005 I was offered numerous chip options for my engine and remapping software to undermine emission controls and boost performance. It was from a few diesel specialists but things have progressed quickly to many more collaborating on tuning software. Here is a diesel tuner comment from 2011, shortly after the EuroV generation STI-D was announced:
Who in 2011 wanted to be part of open source history? Turns out few signed up and so these guys went proprietary instead. Regulators made an example of VW, the largest car company everyone knows, despite so many lower-profile examples everywhere of the same behavior. In fact VW probably just licensed diesel tuning software from one of the performance shops any customer could buy from.
Today we still have tuners all over SF removing their compliant pipes and putting on “noise and air pollution sticks” given typical motives, which rarely include being kind to their environment. Just last night a Canadian was bragging to me about his Ducati being loud with track pipes and so much fun. I had to cut him off and explain the respiratory damage to our neighborhood.
He had no idea. None. This is the real problem. VW management decisions seem to be more a symptom if you actually get your hands dirty, know engines and talk with people about what is happening. When I meet polluters I often pull out a 2004 report on snowmobiles to try and frame how a feedback loop should work.
In recent years, Yellowstone employees suffered headaches, nausea, sore throats, and watering eyes as they worked in a haze of snowmobile exhaust. The health hazards forced the National Park Service to pump fresh air into entrance booths. When workers continued to get sick, the Park Service issued respirators. So far this winter, the Park Service reports that none of its employees have gotten sick from breathing snowmobile exhaust.
That was five years into the fight. By 2013 the environmentalists had successfully shifted social norms and manufacturers had to admit pollution was an unnecessary loophole.
The rules were 15 years in the making because of intense wrangling between snowmobile operators and environmentalists. But both groups support the plan and give credit to snowmobile makers for designing cleaner machines.
If I remember the Yellowstone ranger studies right, one consumer on a non-compliant or exception engine was the equivalent of nearly 10,000 cars exhaust. 1:10,0000 as a measure of harm. And so many people do it without thinking a second about that kind of damage because it’s all external to them or they leave it behind and go home elsewhere.
If someone in America races, runs off-road or uses engines for special purpose (commerce, showing off to friends how loud and obnoxious you can be) they turn off the environmental concerns; especially if it’s a world they just visit occasionally and don’t have to breathe daily because no feedback loop.
With no feedback Americans will make claims that controls impede an ability to win or impress, or get a job done: make a few extra bucks on a trailer full of unripe bananas they have to deliver before it turns into fruit flies. Here is a classic reaction in 2010 when California announced enforcement of diesel emissions checks would include aftermarket products and tuning:
F.U. SACRAMENTO! I’m just trying to save money by getting better gas mileage and not blow my tranny towing. ARREST THE VIOLENT CRIMINALS AND TAX THE MILLIONAIRES
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes there are justified reasons to set aside one concern, safety, to focus on another such as performance. The nature of the problem is that a justified delay or postponement of safety concern to allow other values should be revisited quickly.
I used to run into this all the time from cloud vendors, especially Platform as a Service (PaaS) VPs who would claim security means leaving it up to developers to feel and find the right balance. They almost always were trying to escape considering risk, waiting to bolt-on something instead of baking safety into their platform.
Consider how top engineers in the elite tank design unit of the US Army have built a prototype that uses…a Subaru diesel-electric hybrid. The best engineers in the best Army in the world aren’t futzing around and they are pushing the envelope on vehicle design with diesels. Yay.
Their diesel engine can take in fuel from basically anywhere, anything (troops easily can build a quick bio-diesel generation station to use local sources of oil — waste, trees, algae, etc) that will recharge the electric motor. Imagine having no fuel supply issues as you get (or give) orders to advance into the most remote and hostile territory.
My point is after you get to this amazing point on every possible performance level, where diesel-electric hybrid is outshining other power plant designs, you wonder who on that team is really looking at pollution. Why would they? Who measures it as a success?
When there is nothing powerful enough, no external feedback-loop, to push product teams to include safety from the start, they leave it out. That totally safe Army vehicle, where safety is job one, probably has zero pollution assessment in the final tally.
But I could be wrong. To be fair, some regulations have started to show employees around heavy machinery perform better in clean air. There could be someone monitoring soldier health saying air quality must be clean to win wars. Maybe the Army thought about a sick soldier as a problem and wants cleaner vehicles for improved chance of victory.
This kind of economics problem is the problem of security industry in a nutshell; even deeper it is the problem of quality in products. Bolt-on, not built-in is like fingernails scratching the chalkboard to the security professional being dragged into the product management office for an architecture review. We don’t want to have to ask VW “so explain exactly after 30 years of diesel engines you decided to make them clean in 3 years how?”
VW could have done so much more, could have released a far superior product, many many years ago instead of letting down the environmental minority. Instead they gambled and waited for that minority to start to reach greater opinion and political leverage and by then they were caught behaving badly because they listened for too long to the wrong Americans.
It’s economics, stupid: diesel-electric hybrid launch is cheaper than cheating
Ok, but I hear people, especially young people, say they love forward-looking Musk electric cars named after a famous American. That surely is built-in because no pollutants, right? Shouldn’t all companies jump in the race towards electric cars to solve emissions?
The problem is something smells funny in the Musk office. Why is the range of the car so short (under 100 miles) when driven by engineers who build it, but the marketing claims more than double? Cutting the efficiency in half during real-world driving conditions means Musk is sucking serious energy from coal plants, am I right?
And when you look at the refueling model, how do they break away from top-down dictated energy sources if there is a special interface instead of a universal standard? My guess is this is why they released their IP, to encourage other manufacturers to standardize on their interface. Good move yet still begs the question of control.
More to the point why continue any relationship with Musk after you buy the car? Dare I say it should be seen as curiously anti-freedom to build central-control personal cars with top-down tracking of our daily driving experience. I know this is bucking the trend, given Inrix, Google maps, Bluetoad and all the others trying to monitor our every move.
In the long-run however we surely will find drivers wanting to go off-grid and disconnect from mother Musk. Denying a reasonable option by design can lead to some dangerously predictable behavior, such as tuners removing emission controls in a quest for more power. Listen to customers, but listen wisely.
If I buy a $100K Musk-cart I don’t want to be forced to continue my relationship after purchase day. Let me choose the relationship and connection based on my needs. Don’t lock me in with your service-oriented tentacles. Keep the software open and the personal data closed. I certainly don’t want Musk poking around in my internals without my authorization or shutting my car down at his whim.
No thank you. For me, Diesel had the right plan from the start. His genius coupled with Tesla’s would be the ideal car. It’s long past time to throw the book at those cheating on his grave.
So what now should we do about it?
First, further accelerate the clean air standards and regulations and raise mpg requirements now. We are far behind and the manufacturers have abused every bit of leeway allowed. It is time to take up the slack and force innovation through measured feedback (e.g. enforcement). The market is ready to bear many new options and the incumbents are using their cheats for margin to hold back progress.
Second, revisit the 2001 Right to Repair Act as I’ve said before, and ensure customers retain the rights to troubleshoot and understand fully their vehicles. There is no proven risk to opening the information. Actually the opposite tends to be found. Tuners innovate faster and so manufacturers can learn and improve from the collaboration. The catch being tuners also have to be headed towards improvement using social norms. Ask me why bulletin boards are full of how to improve performance of engines, regardless of emissions, yet never seem to talk about pulling seat-belts out.
Third, realize that car companies claim to respond to customer demand. If they don’t sell what people ask for, they lose. That allows us to focus on the problem of defining clean engine demand; changing the voices that manufacturers focus on. We could also cop out and use a Prius “new tech” model with just a hint of clean. But here are two ways we might be able to force direct clean feedback-loops into engineering: monitoring and enforcement.
It is a thorny issue but I believe the answers to monitoring are in randomness and persistence. This is exactly what testing labs did and should continue to do. Testing for environmental pollution during environmental activity is nothing new. After all we have mpg listed on cars for city and highway “conditions”, am I right? Putting sensors on a diesel and measuring it as it drives across the US is a reasonable test, as I’ve written before (#XFCoast2Coast). Even more to the point I believe it was in-field discovery of large trucks in California removing environmental protections in the mid 2000s that helped push towards 2010 enforcement of diesel smog tests.
More research labs, in cooperation with local air quality authorities, should be funded to sample and exhaust the possibilities. The fact that it was a European wing of the US International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) that unraveled the VW cheats is a great example to expand from. Resources should be allocated to grow independent and creative ISEA (Identify, Store, Evaluate, Adapt) centers to put manufacturers through rigorous tests, while also scaling up existing ERM (Easy, Routine and Minimal Judgment) smog tests for everyone else — simple scheduled stationary assessments.
Enforcement, given a shift of social norm, becomes easier to solve as this issue drags along. VW has been the whipping standard for over a decade but it makes little sense to pretend that this issue is only about them. Fines for big manufacturers is a start, but let’s also keep an eye on tuners and commercial organizations/fleets as well. Those claiming a test “in the wild” or “during use” must account for the consumers pulling a similar cheat after manufacturers hand over the ECU.
Again I want to reiterate that what VW was caught doing is basically what every diesel tuner forum everywhere talks about. In the older hardware cases I knew big diesel truck drivers who put the original chips back in their engine during a smog test and then swap again when they hit the road. Revising software is clearly easier. Social harms aren’t really part of these folks’ equation. The answer to that is not pervasive surveillance of any potential tuner (testing everyone in the wild) but rather a more systemic approach to encourage behavior change.
While I agree with openness and am a huge proponent of right to repair, the VW situation is a good example of where open software would solve a different problem set than the one directly in front of us. Simply calling for open software, even just escrow, in this case may shift pollution problems worse by expanding cheats undetected, pushing tuners the wrong direction. Enforcement through social pressures and localized testing (ala the seat-belt shift from resistance to desire for self-compliance) must be a consideration.
In conclusion, I’m grateful we finally are seeing California clean air battles with diesel reach the federal level. It has been too long a wait for the book to be thrown.
With any luck the EPA action will be a big help to a certain little American car manufacturer in excellent position to deliver a superior product — clean diesel for freedom and fun to those who have such a desire, even if we’re still a minority. Shame about not being able to crack-down on pollution much sooner, like back in the 1980s…
In conclusion, and given the wisdom of NASCAR experts on cheating, put VW where they belong.