2015-09-29

Personal, Corporate, and In-Between Fraud

I realize that the two (really, 1.5) main topics of this post are already somewhat old news, having happened last week and having not really persisted into the news cycle of this week. That said, I didn't have a good opportunity to write this last week, and the end of the month is coming (and I didn't have any other posts this month), so I figured now is the best time for me to write this. Follow the jump to see more.

My main focus here is Volkswagen (VW). For those who don't know, VW was recently caught cheating on emissions tests for its supposedly clean diesel engines used in its small passenger cars. It had claimed to engineer these cars in a way that would allow them to simultaneously achieve high fuel efficiencies and low emissions of particulates that are characteristic of burning diesel fuel; typically, for diesel, there is a trade-off between fuel consumption and particulate emission, yet VW had claimed to lower both significantly without otherwise impacting performance. By doing this, it was able to take advantage of tax exemptions and other subsidies for selling "green" cars, and it sold very large numbers of such diesel cars in the US and in Europe. However, it turned out (fairly early on, as new details show) that VW had deliberately cheated on the tests (as opposed to simply fudging the results). From what I understand, the cars had emissions control software that was programmed to detect whether a car was under normal driving conditions or under specialized emissions testing conditions, the latter being characterized by things like only the front wheels moving (as would occur on a dynamometer) that would never happen under real-world conditions; if the latter condition were detected, the emissions control would turn on, satisfying regulators testing the vehicles, and if the former condition were detected, then the engine would run to give good performance and save fuel but at the cost of particulate emissions being 40 times the legal limit.

As a result, so far the CEO has resigned, and I think a few other top executives have as well. I do hope that the US or European governments seriously consider jail time for these executives, given how harmful the particulate emissions are for public health (although it is practically impossible to pinpoint any given death as being directly due to higher particulate emissions), and given how VW defrauded these governments to get beneficial tax & subsidy treatments (not to mention how it defrauded customers by selling cars that were not otherwise legal to drive on the road).

But there is another aspect that I've been curious about. How complicit were the engineers who programmed this emissions control detection software and made it work with the mechanical parts? I've heard many hypotheses about what went down at VW for this to happen, and I'll list a few of them below, along with thoughts about said hypotheses. (Note: these hypotheses are purely speculation.)
  1. Executives at the top were told by engineers that it was impossible to simultaneously cut particulate emissions and fuel consumption for diesel engines while maintaining performance, so the executives forced the engineers to comply with an obvious demand to install a cheat (threatening to fire engineers who did not comply). This is obviously a sticky situation for engineers that need jobs to put food on the table for themselves and their families. That said, engineering jobs (software or mechanical) are still in fairly high demand, and were somewhat less affected by the recession around the time this practice started (from what I can tell, though those jobs certainly weren't immune to the recession), so I feel like if engineers knew they were being ordered to cheat, they should have quit and tried to search for another job. Otherwise, they're complicit, though perhaps to a lesser degree than the executives who forced the decision.
  2. Engineers knew this was impossible, so they came up with the cheat to satisfy the upper-level managers who didn't understand why this was impossible. This is even worse than the previous scenario, because that suggests engineers would rather cheat to keep their jobs than honestly leave a job that can't be done. It is possible that the engineers could have done this without anyone in management knowing, but as far as I have seen, upper-level management knew about this somehow or another.
  3. Executives sold this to engineers as a simple debugging tool, and then later had certain other engineers change the code to deliberately fool the emissions tests. This makes the plight of the majority of the engineers involved a lot more sympathetic to my eyes, because it suggests that they themselves were defrauded by the upper-level management.
  4. Engineers made this as a debugging tool, and then executives took it and made it into a cheat with the help of certain other engineers. This is like the above scenario, in that the engineers would then have been fooled into believing that if anyone was modifying their work, it was only for good.
I'm sure there are many more scenarios out there in which this could have played out. Again, this is all purely speculation, but I'm interested to see in what directions the investigations lead, because I'm interested to see what motivated the engineers to do what they did.

Oh, and the half-topic? A lot of people have been calling Ahmed Mohamed (the kid who messed around with a clock, brought it to school, and got arrested, cuffs and all) a fraud. I'm not going to go over all the evidence showing that the school officials and police probably never really believed that he had a bomb. Instead, I just have a simple question: how does it benefit someone to call this kid a fraud? A lot of people have latched onto his labeling of his work as an "invention", despite it just being messing around with the case and some of the internals of an existing old digital clock design. I agree that his wording was less than artful, but he's not a politician who's an expert in PR, and come on, he's 14! I'm sure there are plenty of other kids who would use similarly naïve hyperbole; if anything, the issue is more with the media taking his use of the word "invent" so seriously. Plus, I have a good feeling that he'll learn soon enough how engineering and inventing work in the real world, and if nothing else, the positive response from so many other political and business leaders to his work (and their condemnation of his arrest) will encourage him to pursue a STEM field, where he can learn about engineering, the invention and discovery processes, and so on. Anyway, I haven't really seen much other news about him this week, suggesting that as far as the news cycle goes, his 15 minutes in the spotlight are up; hopefully, the people calling him a "fraud" can move on too.

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