Volkswagen Knowingly Adapted “Cheat Switch” For Four Different Engines Over Seven Years, Claim Insiders

It’s been more than a month since Volkswagen came clean and admitted that it had been knowingly installed emissions control software designed to cheat emissions tests and emit as much as 40 times the legal NOx limit when being driven on the public highway in certain model-year diesel vehicles sold in both Europe and the U.S.

That defeat device — a software algorithm which some call the ‘cheat switch’ — was initially believed to affect just cars fitted with Volkswagen’s 2.0-litre EA189 diesel engine in an attempt to avoid the costs associated with fitting the expensive Selective Catalytic Reduction NOx traps and AdBlue urea injection system found in many larger-capacity diesel engined vehicles.

As more claims come in, things start to get very dark indeed for the German automaker.

As more claims come in, things start to get very dark indeed for the German automaker.

The deception itself, claims Volkswagen’s board in defence of the company, involved just a handful of rogue engineers and managers rather than a systematic, company-wide attempt to cheat emissions regulations, and was limited to just that one engine.

But, claimed Reuters in an article on Saturday, the German automaker not only installed the illegal emissions control software in its EA189 engines but then modified it for use in a total of four different engine types, indicating that the  dieselgate scandal could go far deeper than many had claimed.

Citing an anonymous Volkswagen manager “with knowledge of the matter” and a U.S. official close to the investigations into the malpractice, Reuters says the claimed manipulation of the software for different engines suggested “a complex deception” by the automaker.

At the moment, spokespersons for Volkswagen in both the EU and U.S. have declined to offer any official statement in response to the allegations, but a spokesperson at VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany said that “we are working intensely to investigate who knew what and when, but it’s far too early to tell.”

Despite Volkswagen’s official statement on the deception, not to mention the board’s insistence that the full details of the illegal activity are not known, it’s clear from previous statements made by various Volkswagen officials that the problems are far more widespread than initially claimed.

The EA288 engine also has the illegal software in it.

The EA288 engine also has the illegal software in it.

As Reuters points out, it is known that the cheat switch was fitted to both the EA189 engine and then to the newer EA288 engine. As any software engineer will tell you, the switch between the two different engines would have required someone within Volkswagen — most likely a team of engineers — to have rewritten the switch to work in the new engine.

Since the regulations are different between the U.S and Europe, the exact operating parameters for the cheat switch for each market would have required tweaking to ensure that the engines passed tests on both sides of the Atlantic, a fact that Volkswagen North America chief Michael Horn admitted to a U.S. congressional subcommittee earlier this month.

How many people were involved in the deception? That’s tough to say, but given modern coding practices and the likely management structure involved, we’d guess that entire teams knew of the deception, ranging from the software engineers themselves through to the testing teams, system architects and their line managers.

A conservative estimate would put that figure well above the ‘handful’ of engineers originally claimed and could reach as high as 50 or more.

Regardless of who is ultimately held responsible however, one thing is clear: those with Volkswagen on their resumé could find it hard to find new employment — regardless of their connection to the dieselgate scandal.


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  • JohnCBriggs

    I don’t know. Seems like the programmers were brilliant but acted unethically. They might be a great hire for another company as ethics can be set by management, but brilliance can’t.

    • KIMS

      I think it is way more nuanced than that, but you summed it up I think. Ethics is both a personal quality, and a workplace quality. Its the same thing with safety, risk and accident management. It has to be(come) the de facto culture at the company for it to really work. It’s not enough to have written policies and talk about it at the annual meeting. It needs to be driven as the culture of the company, starting at the very very top and be reinforced all the way down. Same thing with ethics. An individual may have it, but be bound by other constraints in his or her life that prevents them from acting that way, unless the corporate culture is one that values ethics and (social) responsibility.

      • JohnCBriggs

        You make a very good case for the complex nature of such things.
        But sometimes it is far simpler. For example, at my company, we don’t work on projects related to handguns. That is the case for one simple reason. The director personally objects to them and it is not up for further discussion. Right, wrong, or indifferent, his moral judgement has set the stage that his engineer followed. Left up to their own judgement, most of our engineers would work on handgun related projects.
        Interestingly, the director takes on plenty of defense projects, just not handguns.

        • KIMS

          Oh for sure, manager/boss/top-dawg policies and opinions are sometimes like that. The complexities arise more clearly when leadership does not clearly enforce ‘this way or that way’.. -or, if your boss was opposite, you were ONLY working on defense and weapons contracts.. might make some leave the company over that for similar complexities. 🙂 Either way my ramblings were meant to bring out complexities, not to argue against what you said. 🙂
          (also finding that I have too much time for things like this as I try to whip my old engineering laptop into shape again.. somewhere along the way, I must have upset the computer daemons because at this point I’m working on a complete re-imaging to get back up and running… meanwhile I’m perusing forums and idly typing away … 😉 )

  • KIMS

    It likely takes a combination of many things to enable an individual to stand up and say “NO, this is WRONG”… I am not all that surprised that VW went from little to no ‘noise’ on this issue, to a full-blown ‘finger-pointing fest’. As for why people didn’t speak up sooner:
    1) personal financial stability (how bad do you need your job? that raise you are hoping for? can you afford to not only loose your job, but also rob yourself of a valuable reference (e.g. former boss)? That is a huge deal… imagine trying to land a job after e.g. 3+ years at VW, and not be able to provide your former manager/boss as a reference?)

    2) personal ‘backbone’ (how likely are you to pave your own road regardless of what your peers are doing? What about if your manager or supervisor exerts pressure? when do you ‘yield’ to peer (and management) pressures?)

    3) moral grounds (at the time, perhaps it was not perceived as such a big deal, compared to all the other cheats done by the auto-industry at large during various types of testing and self-reporting, the personal decision that ‘this isn’t worse than what the other guys are doing’ may not have been such a giant leap. Also, some people just don’t give a flying fly’s behind.)

    The first two points above I think would account for the majority of people keeping silent. It takes a very special individual to be free from influences of those two.

    As far as a lot of ‘anonymous’ sources now speaking out, I think that can be broken down in two rough categories (allowing for the fact that some wont fit any of what I wrote here, of course!):

    1) went along with it for reasons similar to 1 or 2 above, but always wanted to speak out.. Now they found a way to do so.
    2) attention mongers. They may not have cared at all at the time, but now that the winds are blowing in a different direction, they see their chance to get personal fame, distance themselves from the mess (to maintain their own marketability?) etc.

    At any rate, I think most HR people would be wise enough to not treat any VW reference as a ‘non-starter’, that just wouldn’t make any sense.. What WOULD make sense however, is to grill the applicant about their VW positions and roles, and grill them on ethics, social responsibilities, etc… if that sort of stuff is even interesting to that employer.