VW's Slow Agony Illustrates Carmakers' Problem With Software

At stake is not only adherence to the law but the way software is integrated into the total package

2 min read
VW's Slow Agony Illustrates Carmakers' Problem With Software
Photo: AP Images

Behind the bit-by-bit revelations of Volkswagen's emissions-cheating scandal lies a larger problem: old-line carmakers are increasingly out of their element in a software-driven manufacturing world, aka the Internet of Things. 

“The automotive industry’s problem has become one of systems integration, with software one of the main things they’re integrating,” according to Bill Curtis, the executive director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality and an IEEE Fellow. “It’s not the job of a classical mechanical enginer, or even an electrical engineer.” Curtis spoke to Spectrum in late October, before the latest stage in VW’s unfolding scandal.

That stage came over the weekend, when Germany’s Handelsblatt reported that CEO Matthias Müller admitted that his company’s software cheat affected not only smaller diesel-powered cars but also the larger, six-cylinder versions offered by the Audi and Porsche divisions. Müller ran Porsche before assuming the top job in late September, replacing Martin Winterkorn, who had departed in disgrace.

The cheat made the cars hew to environmental standards in the lab while flouting them on the road, allowing for nitrous oxide emissions many times higher than what’s allowed in the United States (and significantly higher than the less stringent European requirement). As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will test more cars on the road than it has done in the past.

It’s easy to blame VW’s culture for frightening underlings into achieving higher management’s goals at all cost, with no questions asked about how they do it. But there is also another, bigger problem with the process by which software is written at all auto companies.

According to Curtis, the modern car is absorbing digital technology far faster than the car companies’ executives can come to understand it.  

Of course, the auto companies could simply outsource much of their software development, but that risks letting tech companies eat the car guys’ lunch. This fear is particularly strong in Germany, where reliance on home-grown engineering is deeply ingrained and where suspicion of common platforms controlled by the likes of Google and Apple is rife. That suspicion has a name all its own: Plattform-Kapitalismus, as the Economist noted last week.

At stake is not only adherence to the law but also to standards of quality that affect performance, safety and cybersecurity. “Companies like Boeing have developed really rigorous software testing processes,” Curtis says, as opposed to fixing software after the fact. “They know you cannot test-in quality. I’m not sure the [American] automotives know that yet. You don’t test it in—you design it in.” 

German experts, quoted in that Economist article, say that German automakers might derive an advantage from the German method of teaching computer science, which emphasizes precision over speed of development. That would tend to favor the design of very reliable systems—like those that govern safety in a self-driving automobile.

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

Keep Reading ↓Show less