The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have listened to Ron Weasley’s dad. In the Harry Potter books and films, Arthur Weasley is a bureaucrat in the British magical world’s chief regulatory agency, the Ministry of Magic. His job is to protect people from dangerous devices. He is known for his unusual fascination with non-magical technologies and toward the end of the second book he delivers a deep lesson in living safely with technology. “What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”
Volkswagen programmed diesel cars over half a decade to cheat on its emissions tests. It’s a story of massive corporate fraud but also an object lesson in everything that’s terrifying about a world in which cars and other things can think for themselves.
VW used software to put a new spin on an old scam. Wherever there is a test, someone will try to cheat on it. The EPA has banned emissions test “defeat devices“ for decades. In 1995, it fined GM $11 million for turning off carbon monoxide controls when the air conditioning was on. Some observers have defended GM, arguing that carbon monoxide pollution is primarily an issue in the winter. But the larger principle — truth in testing — is important. You don’t tell your kid to cheat on their math test.
The car of the future is a computer with wheels. And wherever there’s software, you’ll also find bugs, hacks and viruses.
VW’s defeat devices were subtle and more insidious. Instead of just turning off and on with the air conditioner, they took into account “the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine’s operation, and barometric pressure” — a list of criteria that precisely mirrors the conditions of the EPA’s required emissions testing.
A dedicated circuit or a special valve would have been impossible for VW to hide. But it’s easy to conceal the scraps of code that check to see whether the car is being driven in a way that looks suspiciously like an emissions test. Modern cars already contain tens of millions of lines of code; what’s a few more between friends?
In theory, at least, software should also be easy to fix. VW’s engineers will write a replacement version of its emissions-control software, leaving out the defeat device this time. Installing that software on existing cars — “patching” them, in the language of software — is just a matter of taking them to a service center and plugging them in to a computer there.
It might not play out that way, though. A large fraction of recalled cars are never fixed, because owners never get the notice, don’t realize it was serious, or never get around to bringing their cars in. Even safety recalls — which you might think would get car owners to take action — have shockingly low completion rates. One-third of recalled cars are never fixed; there are an estimated 37 million cars on the road in the United States with unfixed safety recalls.
The VW recall is going to be an even harder sell: Bringing down the cars’ emissions will also bring down their performance and their mileage. A Jetta owner who takes their car in to get “fixed” will drive off the service center lot in a much slower car. Some “green” owners will bite the bullet and do it for the environment’s sake.
In hindsight, these sentiments are darkly ironic in the way that great corporate crimes always are. The best way to rob a bank is to own one; the best way to defeat factory-set emissions controls is to own the factory. A panic about individual mom-and-pop garages tampering with a few cars was used to justify laws that helped make it harder to detect the fact that one of the world’s largest automakers tampered with 11 million cars. The EPA has already shown that it doesn’t know when to look inside of software black boxes. Unless the rest of us are allowed to, who knows what other evil lurks in the hearts of cars?