Last week, Volkswagen of America C.E.O. Michael Horn told a House subcommittee investigating his company’s ongoing emissions scandal that it wasn’t a corporate decision to cheat emissions tests by installing “defeat” software in eleven million diesel cars. Instead, Horn said, it was “a couple of software engineers.” His interlocutor, Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, reminded Horn that he was under oath and then asked him when Volkswagen’s senior management in Europe learned of the tampering, which reportedly began in 2009. When Horn replied that they found out only this September, Barton expressed incredulity.
“I agree, it’s very hard to believe,” Horn said.
Indeed, it was hard to believe. A couple of rogue engineers took it upon themselves to write and install software that slashed emissions on Volkswagen diesels, but only when the cars were being tested, then kept it from senior company figures? Sure, rogue financiers get caught up in scandals, but rogue engineers? And rogue German engineers, no less, from a culture famously fond of rules? Sag, dass das nicht wahr ist!
The explanation was at least mildly plausible, initially, though, because a modern high-end car is staggeringly complex. It requires something like a hundred million lines of code, about two hundred and fifty hundred times the number of lines in the Space Shuttle. No one could know every line of that software, making it theoretically possible that engineers could have sneaked in the emissions-defeating protocol without Volkswagen’s upper management knowing. Microsoft engineers did something like that decades ago, when they slipped a flight-simulator game into the shipping version of Excel 1997.
But on Wednesday, Spiegel issued a report, based on one of the many investigations taking place at Volkswagen and around the world, saying that at least thirty managers were involved in the cheating. This squares with Barton’s skepticism, not to mention common sense. Volkswagen engineers didn’t smuggle in software that allows you to play Tetris on in-car G.P.S. screens. They wrote code that fundamentally changed how the company’s diesel cars worked. The altered software affected engine emissions, mileage, cost, and power—all things that auto executives care about. In other words, while it’s technically possible to install such software, it’s hard to imagine that it could have gone unnoticed. Modern automobile engines are made by teams that design, build, test, and tune everything to produce the desired effect. Companies have been building these engines for more than a hundred years, refining a process the leaves no room for mysteries or magic outcomes. When a car produces more power, there is a reason; when a car produces fewer emissions, there is a reason. And when, at Volkswagen, its diesel engine produced forty times more nitrogen oxide when it wasn’t being tested than when it was, many people inside would have known why.
In a powerful book about the disintegration, immediately after launch, of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts in January of 1986, the sociologist Diane Vaughan described a phenomenon inside engineering organizations that she called the “normalization of deviance.” In such cultures, she argued, there can be a tendency to slowly and progressively create rationales that justify ever-riskier behaviors. Starting in 1983, the Challenger shuttle had been through nine successful launches, in progressively lower ambient temperatures, across the years. Each time the launch team got away with a lower-temperature launch, Vaughan argued, engineers noted the deviance, then decided it wasn’t sufficiently different from what they had done before to constitute a problem. They effectively declared the mildly abnormal normal, making deviant behavior acceptable, right up until the moment when, after the shuttle launched on a particularly cold Florida morning in 1986, its O-rings failed catastrophically and the ship broke apart.
If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers.
If this was, in fact, the case, then Horn was basically right that engineers were responsible. The scandal wouldn’t have been caused by a few rogue engineers, though, so much as by the nature of engineering organizations themselves. Faced with an expensively engineered diesel engine that couldn’t meet strict emissions standards, Volkswagen engineers “tuned” their engine software. And they kept on tuning it, normalizing deviance along the way, until they were far from where they started, to the point of gaming the emissions tests by detecting test conditions and re-calibrating the engine accordingly on the fly.
But assuming all of this is true, how could it have persisted for so long, and without more people stepping forward and speaking out? Two reasons come to mind. The first is that using software to dodge rules doesn’t always feel illicit. Stealing CDs from stores feels like theft; for a long time, at least, stealing music by downloading MP3s didn’t. Software changes the nature of our relationship to things, making rules feel malleable and more arbitrary. It enables the normalization of deviance. The second reason relates to pride. Volkswagen was heavily invested, both financially and culturally, in producing a clean-diesel engine. That the company was failing to meet the standard required by American emissions tests would have been embarrassing and frustrating to its German engineers. Some may have seen those tests as arbitrary, and felt justified in “tuning” the engine software to perform differently during them—even as it now looks, to the outside world, like an obvious scandal.
We are, by now, used to seeing greed as the primary driver of corporate scandals. In the wake of Enron and the mortgage fraud that led to the financial crisis, the great surprise of the Volkswagen scandal may prove to be that the malfeasance could have arisen systemically, without the direct involvement of anyone higher up (or the involvement of mortgage traders, for that matter). It is still possible, of course, that we will learn that the engineers were under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary, but based on what we now know, that seems implausible. It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules. Volkswagen is promising to release a fix for its software soon; fixing its entire operation may leave it wishing it could merely fire a few mortgage traders.