VW demonstrates the Myths of Conspiracy Theories

Several years ago a Connecticut Secretary of the State publicly referred to election integrity activists as “Conspiracy Theorists” which was followed by an apology after one of us objected.  Actually I am a conspiracy theorist, as many people are, in regard to one thing or another.  Calling someone “Conspiracy Theorist” is almost as derogatory, and similarly often as misleading, as calling someone a “Terrorist” or “Communist”.

Myth:  Conspiracies don’t exist

Truth: Conspiracies exist.  People, corporations, and governments are frequently discovered to have committed conspiracies, often charged, and even convicted of Conspiracy to Commit [some crime]. The recent Libor financial scandal comes to mind, the Tobacco companies covering up studies linking tobacco to cancer, the recent disclosure that Exxon hid studies predicting global warming for decades, the NSA cover ups exposed by Snowden, and the FBI conspiring with Whitey Bolger, to name a few.

Myth:  If Conspiracy X were true, too many people would know and it would have come out by now.

Truth: There are may conspiracies that remain unknown or not well-known for years or decades.  Some may never be known. Many actually take only a few individuals who are highly motivated by fear of consequences, real intimidation, or perceived intimidation.  Many suspected conspiracies are not investigated, even some where participants come forward publicly or surface their concerns through channels.

Case in point, the VW emissions conspiracy, which just became widely know in the last few days.  Now we learn from two articles in the New York Times that there were suspicions going back to 2007.

As Volkswagen Pushed to Be No. 1, Ambitions Fueled a Scandal <read>

Volkswagen’s unbridled ambition is suddenly central to what is shaping up as one of the great corporate scandals of the age. On Tuesday, Volkswagen said it had installed software in 11 million diesel cars that cheated on emissions tests, allowing the vehicles to spew far more deadly pollutants than regulations allowed…

Disabling the emissions controls brought major advantages, including much better mileage — a big selling point in Volkswagen’s push to dominate in America…

Volkswagen’s current crisis has its roots in decisions made almost a decade ago. In 2007, it abandoned a pollution-control technology developed by Mercedes-Benz and Bosch and instead used internal technology.

At the same time, the determination by Mr. Winterkorn, the company’s hard-charging chief executive, to surpass Toyota put enormous strain on his managers to deliver growth in America…

Cheating on emissions tests solved several issues at once. Not only were drivers rewarded with better mileage and performance, but the automaker also avoided more expensive and cumbersome pollution-control systems.

While Volkswagen cheated behind the scenes, it publicly espoused virtue…

It is not Volkswagen’s first run-in with regulators over emissions. When the United States began regulating tailpipe pollutants in the 1970s, Volkswagen was one of the first companies caught cheating. It was fined $120,000 in 1973 for installing what became known as a “defeat device,” technology to shut down a vehicle’s pollution control systems…

Over the last year, when confronted with evidence that its system was not performing as promised, Volkswagen aggressively pushed back, saying that regulators were not doing the testing properly…

The same year Mr. Winterkorn made his speech in Chattanooga [four years ago], officials from California’s environmental regulator began hearing about a problem from their European Union counterparts:

They were finding discrepancies between the emissions of diesels in the lab and on the road across the industry…

In 2013, a nonprofit group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, proposed testing on-road diesel emissions from cars in the United States — something never done before…

The transportation council, staffed by a number of former E.P.A. officials, did not expect to catch Volkswagen, or anyone else, cheating. In fact, it assumed that American diesel cars would run much cleaner than their European counterparts…

“If you’re idling in traffic for three hours in L.A. traffic, we know a car is not in its sweet spot for good emissions results,” said Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research professor at West Virginia University, which was hired to conduct the tests. “But when you’re going at highway speed at 70 miles an hour, everything should really work properly. The emissions should come down. But the Volkswagens’ didn’t come down.”

It was difficult to know what was going on: When the two Volkswagens were placed on a “car treadmill” known as a dynamometer, they performed flawlessly.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Mr. German said. “That was the real red flag.”

The normal response is blame the testers or the conspiracy theorists:

Volkswagen fired back. “They tried to poke holes in our study and its methods, saying we didn’t know what we were doing,” Mr. Thiruvengadam said. “They were very aggressive.”

The company offered many explanations: Weather conditions. Driving styles. Technicalities that it claimed the researchers and regulators did not
understand. “There was always some story, some reason they’d come up with each time,” Mr. Young said. “Meeting after meeting, they would try to explain it away, and we’d go back to the lab and try again. But we’d get the same results.”

The back-and-forth lasted for months. Finally, in April, Volkswagen made an offer: It would conduct a voluntary recall, or service campaign, to fix the problem in certain model year 2010 to 2014 diesel vehicles.

Regulators got the software update for their test vehicles and returned to the lab. The results were not good. “It didn’t solve the problem,” Mr. Young said.
Confronted again, Volkswagen continued to maintain that there was a problem with the testers, not the vehicles…

“It was the repeated answers that did not add up that really led to the discovery of the problem in the first place,” Mr. Young said. “They were kind of hoisted on their own petard.”

The revelations were so stunning that some executives at Volkswagen Group of America were kept in the dark about the pending E.P.A. violation until just before it was announced, according to two people familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another article outlines the risks and difficulties of protecting the complex software running vehicles.  Even so, we are aware of “Conspiracy Theories” claiming that surprising, untimely plane, and more to the point here, car accidents, that could have been caused by the rigging of car computers. Even in the face of individuals with obvious motivation. Without investigation, we cannot prove the rigging of software, even without such proof after an investigation its difficult to be certain, since you cannot prove a negative.  Yet, without an investigation, we are left with the old adage, “Where there is smoke there is fire” now, “When their is no transparent investigation, there is suspicion.

Complex Car Software Becomes the Weak Spot Under the Hood <read>

And for those skeptical of a cover-up and a partially known problem: From the Hartford Courant News Briefing this morning:

VW was told of fake emissions years ago

BERLIN — German media reported Sunday that Volkswagen was warned years ago about the use of illegal tricks to defeat emissions tests.

German weekly Bild am Sonntag reported that VW’s internal investigation found a 2007 letter from parts supplier Bosch warning Volkswagen not to use the software during regular operation. Separately, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported that a VW technician raised concerns about illegal practices in 2011.

For a summary of the analogy and application of similar risks to voting, see this post by Barbara Simons at the Verified Voting Blog <read>

And from Bruce  Schneier <read>

My worry is that some corporate executives won’t interpret the VW story as a cautionary tale involving just punishments for a bad mistake but will see it instead as a demonstration that you can get away with something like that for six years.






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