Software used by Volkswagen in emissions scandal unearthed
Experts calling for stricter regulations on emissions tests…
A computer scientist for the University of California, Kirill Levchenko, led a team of researchers to identify the specialised code installed in the so-called defeat devices used by Volkswagen (VW) to manipulate Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions test results in diesel vehicles.
After a year of searching, the team of researchers from all over the world found the code in two spots. One source was on VW’s own website in the maintenance section; and the other was posted online in a forum where enthusiasts discussed all things cars.
“We were able to find the smoking gun. We found the system and how it was used.”
During the year-long search, Levchenko and his team discovered more about the code and how it was used. He presented these findings at the 38th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in May.
The annual conference is held for researchers and practitioners in computer security and cyber privacy to come together and share information and ideas. Researcher Moritz Contag at the Ruhr University of Bochum explained that the team tested hundreds of firmware (software that controls certain products and systems) and found that almost half reportedly had a potential “defeat device”. Contag also talked about how this firmware works and how it can control engine behaviour.
Since the scandal broke in the autumn of 2015, it has been common knowledge that VW’s “defeat devices” were built to allow vehicles to pass emissions testing conditions. The official tests are the same in terms of things like routine and duration. VW engineers could use this information to finely tune the “defeat devices” to control the vehicle’s engine performance to give the results required exactly when it was required – i.e. in testing. Levchenko and his team found the codes to contain information of the distance, speed and even the position the wheels would be in during testing. as such, the vehicle ‘knew’ when it was in test mode and allowed emissions reducing controls to engage so the vehicle could pass testing .
Out in ‘real world’ driving conditions, emissions controls could be disengaged.
VW paying the price…
Cheating emissions testing has yielded heavy sanctions for the giant car company. For the past couple of years, VW has paid out billions of dollars in fines and settlements. Global warming and other environmental problems are only getting worse, and legislation is used to restrict the damage to our health and on the planet.
What we all need to take stock of is the fact that NOx kills people and our planet.
Stricter regulations on tests
In light of what has happened, Levchenko and his team are calling for stricter regulations:
“Regulators and the research community will need to rethink how we make sure that vehicles, and other devices subject to regulatory oversight, are compliant.”
Although there are already strict legislations governing air quality, the testing procedure clearly needs a significant overhaul to prevent companies from cheating the same way VW did.
However, there is recognition that the software involved is so complicated that only a small group of people would reportedly be able to monitor or work with it; leading to problems with impartiality. Sam Akehurst, a lecturer at the Centre for Low Emission Vehicle Research at the University of Bath, asks:
“…who would have the capability to do that, and who would be independent enough not to effectively potentially share that code between competitor companies?”
We can see that the emissions scandal is having a significant effect on regulators across the world, as more and more governments are calling for tests to be carried out in ‘real world’ conditions. Previously, some tests could be flawed as investigators can be associated with the companies who’s vehicles they were testing. They could therefore potentially bias the results, and also only a small amount of vehicles would be tested which could then apply to millions of vehicles
It’s safe to say that the VW emissions scandal has rocked the industry, and many changes are set to happen as a result of their lies and deceit.
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