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Lies, damned lies and benchmarks

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Oct. 2, 2015
Volkswagen cheated on the emissions tests for 11 million vehicles. But it’s not the only company that has built lying into its testing and benchmarking.

vw golf tdi clean diesel was 2010 8983
Credit: Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

It always struck me, as I recoiled from the stink of diesel fumes on the interstate, that the notion of “clean” diesel had to be wrong. It turns out I was right — at least in the case of Volkswagen, which cheated on emissions tests for about 11 million vehicles. Now countries are banning sales of the makes that had been programmed to lie about pollution results.

Shocking? Only if you think that VW is the only company that’s ever shipped products that faked test results.

If you haven’t heard about it, several models of diesel VW vehicles built between 2009 and 2015 and diesel Audi A3 models from 2010 to 2015 had software installed in their electronic control modules that sensed when an emissions test was being conducted.

When the car figured out that it was being tested, which it seemed able to do almost perfectly, it would switch to “clean mode.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard.”

Able to tout great numbers on the test stand with no performance hit on the road, VW was able to post excellent financial numbers — until it was caught. Now VW CEO Martin Winterkorn has resigned because of the cheating scandal.

Oh, well, so much for VW’s next quarterly results.

Why did the third-biggest carmaker in the world do it? Because cheating was easier than building competitive “clean” diesel vehicles.

When the U.S. adopted stricter pollution rules in 2008 (with the EU following in 2015), VW was caught between a rock and a hard place. It found it impossible to build clean diesels that had good fuel mileage. So it programmed its cars to fib.

I am not among those who find this sordid tale surprising.

I’ve been running and building benchmarks for close to three decades now, and I’ve been an expert witness in cases involving them. And I can tell you that tech companies have been double-dealing on tests since day one.

Back in the 1980s, I and other technology journalists discovered a brand of Ethernet card that knocked the others out of the race. How could it be so much faster than the others? It cheated.

When this card “saw” a then common traffic pattern involving Novell network interface cards (NIC), as my colleague Wayne Rash observed, “it simply passed packets through without processing.

 

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