VW Scandal: Hybrids, Hackers Offer Clues to Motivation

VW_Clean_MPG - H 2015
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VW_Clean_MPG - H 2015

As cars are increasingly controlled by lines of code, software sleight-of-hand can improve engine performance — or trick regulators into thinking a dirty diesel is actually clean.

One of the central mysteries to Volkswagen's diesel scandal is: why?

Why would a corporation of such immense size and stature, which earlier this year finally achieved its goal of surpassing Toyota and General Motors as the world's largest automaker, undertake such a widespread and brazen act of fraud?

The answer could lay between the poles of corporate necessity and the hacker's credo that computer code exists to be manipulated.

To recap: VW gamed the software controlling the emissions of 11 million of its TDI "clean diesel" vehicles so that the cars' computers could detect when they were being smog-tested but spew up to 35 times the allowable levels of nitrogen oxide when actually driven.

For years, according to automotive technology expert John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, the German auto industry sneered at the electrification of automobiles — even as Toyota's Prius, the first mainstream gasoline-electric hybrid, became a worldwide bestseller — because the technology was inelegant. Not to mention that hybrids were "slow, unpleasant to drive, and strange-looking ... for real cars driven by real-world drivers, diesel was the way," according to Voelcker.

VW's arrogance about its diesel technology painted the company into a corner after U.S. emissions and corporate fuel efficiency standards were raised sharply in 2009, Voelcker contends.

With no major research and development into electric cars or hybrids in the pipeline, VW was forced to rely on its diesel models, which offered better mileage than conventional gasoline engines, but couldn't meet the tougher emission standards without a modification that would have raised their prices, already near the upper limit of their market segments.

Too, the modification would have significantly degraded the performance of VW's Golf and Passat TDI diesels, which were explicitly marketed as being fun to drive. 

VW's dilemma: add a modification that would hobble the performance and raise the price of cars it needed to sell in volume to meet the new fuel-efficiency standards, or ... tweak the software so that the cars passed emission tests but accelerated and spewed pollutants when the government wasn't looking.

VW has since admitted it choose the latter course, and the ramifications to the company, the environment and the owners of the cars are still unfolding.

But who within VW would have the technological know-how to pull off such a blatant deception? 

Author and computer-crimes expert Jonathan Littman suspects in-house corporate hackers.

"Hackers, who likely worked for Volkswagen, cranked out this nasty code based on the absurd rationale that they thought they were clever and imagined they had impunity," Littman speculates.

Littman, author of well-received books about legendary hackers Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen, contends that "hackers are not like other people" and that they can't "resist the thrills and temptations of the expanding digital world."

But for Mitnick and Poulsen, who evaded the FBI for years by technical trickery, "money or crime wasn't the objective. They were recklessly curious, caught up in the boyish game of hacking." 

VW's presumed hackers, Littman argues, "are a new scourge. Their hack wasn't about exploration. This was a cold, calculated cheat."

According to Littman, when Poulsen and disgraced Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky were serving sentences in Lompoc federal prison, Pouslen told Boesky: "I did it for the entertainment."

The VW hackers, Littman contends, "did it for corporate greed. There are plenty more just like them at hundreds of other companies. Ethics is missing from their code."