Not just emissions: manufacturers' dirty tricks fake everything about cars

VW's diesel firmware detected when it was undergoing emissions testing and changed the engine tuning to produce 1/40 of its normal toxic output, fooling regulators. But though they're the only ones who've been caught using firmware to game emissions testing, they're not the only ones with something to hide.

It's an open secret that manufacturers who're conducting gas-mileage testing on new cars trick them out in ways that are totally unrepresentative of field conditions, in order to produce sticker-numbers that promise eye-popping (and unattainable) fuel efficiency. These kinds of shenanigans work great in the EU, where auto manufacturers self-certify their efficiency claims and face no real penalties for lying.

Before a car's fuel efficiency is tested, manufacturers take such steps as removing all extra weight (including the stereo!), removing source of drag like side mirrors, adding special lube to the engine and filling the tires with exotic gases. The alternator is switched off so that the gas goes further (but the battery drains), and the petrol itself is replaced with special, expensive blends not available in the wild. There are even more dirty tricks -- taping the seams in the panels to reduce drag, running the cars in high gear and at high temperatures, for example.

But when you add firmware to the mix, you open up whole new fields for cheating manufacturers. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a felony (punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500K fine for a first offense) to break the DRM on car firmware, meaning that you can hide all sorts of dirty secrets in there. Laws like the DMCA are present all over the world, thanks to the efforts of the US Trade Representative, who has made adopting protection for DRM into a condition for trading with the USA. As the world's governments have volunteered to spend tax-money to protect the secrecy of proprietary software, companies have taken them up on the implicit offer: add DRM to your products, get away with murder (literally).

Volkswagen has retained some well-known lawyers to help them with Dieselgate: the firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, best known for defending BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Who killed the world?

It is possible that some companies are using software trickery to cheat on Europe’s tests on fuel efficiency. But as Nick Molden of Emission Analytics, a consulting firm in Britain, argues, the European testing regime is so out of date and open to abuse that carmakers do not have to bother with such subtlety. The companies test their own vehicles under the auspices of independent testing organisations certified by national governments. But these organisations are commercial enterprises that compete for business. Although obliged to put the vehicles through standard activity cycles both in a laboratory and on a test track—neither of which is remotely realistic—they are aware that their ability to “optimise” the test procedures is a way to win clients. In practice this means doing everything possible to make the test cars perform far better than the versions punters drive off the forecourt.

The cars that are tested have generally been modified to be as frugal as possible. Things that add weight, such as sound systems, are left out. Drag is reduced by removing wing mirrors and taping up cracks between panels. Special lubricants make the engines run more smoothly. Low-resistance tyres are overinflated with special mixtures of gas. Alternators are disconnected, which gives more power to the wheels but guarantees a flat battery in the end. The cars may be run in too high a gear, and conducting tests at the highest allowed ambient temperature—another efficiency booster—is commonplace.

Worst of all, though, is that once this charade has produced a claim as to the car’s efficiency, no one checks whether it is true or not. In America, too, carmakers are responsible for their own tests. But there the EPA goes on to acquire vehicles at random for testing at a later date, to see if the cars on sale to the public live up to the claims. If the numbers do not match up substantial fines can follow. In 2014 Hyundai-Kia was fined $300m for misstating fuel-economy figures. Europe has no such system for punishing those who transgress. As a result more than half Europe’s claimed gains in efficiency since 2008 have been “purely theoretical”, says T&E. And the industry as a whole has developed a gaming attitude to tests and regulations that it should take seriously. As Drew Kodjak of the ICCT observes, VW’s activities in America are part of a pattern of behaviour that the “European system created”.

A mucky business [Economist]

(via Red Ferret)

Notable Replies

  1. timmh says:

    It all started with Corinthian leather.

  2. Obvious answer is to scrap the DMCA and start over. What will really happen is VW will be half-hung, tarred and feathered, then drawn and quartered. And that will be it. This is a great time for the EU to add some teeth to their emissions testing requirements. Oddly, this is one of the few places where US regulations are a bit more sensible.

    As for inflated efficiency claims, my stupid Prius got 53.2 mpg on a recent road trip with less than optimal tires. Sticker said 52 when I bought it. I rarely get 48 around town, though. People drive like crap, which makes me cranky, which makes me drive maniacally. So, usually 42-44 mpg around town.

  3. Sadly, the triple-A is a corrupt and politically motivated organization that believes "greens" are America's worst enemy. Not content with their past racist misdeeds (they used to be a whites-only club, until that became illegal) they now function as a lobbying organization for the Oil and Auto industries, using member dues to fight anti-pollution and road safety legislation. Anything they publish that concerns pollution, fuel efficiency, or highway safety is highly suspect.

    It's really a terrible thing, because they do a really great job of supporting American motorists who are actually on the road - their road service and maps and similar service organizations are fantastic. It's the stuff they do in Washington that's horrific.

  4. I'll be damned if I can remember who or when, but my dad told me about one of the automakers that advertised how its new models had far superior brakes, the effectiveness of which you could feel during a test drive. And it turned out that the brakes were just as crappy as the previous year's model, but they'd made the front springs and shocks considerably softer, so the car's nose would dive more precipitously during hard braking, making it feel like the brakes were stopping harder.

    Chrysler in the late 40s, maybe? Can't remember.

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