VW Scandal Shows a Need for More Tech, Not Less

You could be forgiven for reacting to the Volkswagen scandal by yearning for the halcyon era of dumb cars. Remember when our rides weren’t controlled by secret, corrupt software — when your father’s Oldsmobile was solidly mechanical and so simple in its operation that even a government regulator could understand it?

But emotionally attractive as it might be, the analog automobile isn’t a realistic option (which is perhaps why even Luddites aren’t asking for it). The real lesson in VW’s scandal — in which the automaker installed “defeat devices” that showed the cars emitting lower emissions in lab tests than they actually did — is not that our cars are stuffed with too much technology. Instead, the lesson is that there isn’t enough tech in vehicles.

In fact, the faster we upgrade our roads and autos with better capabilities to detect and analyze what’s going on in the transportation system, the better we’ll be able to find hackers, cheaters and others looking to create havoc on the highways.

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Right now we are at an awkward in-between phase in the transformation of the automobile — somewhere in the uncanny valley between the mechanical horse of Henry Ford’s era and the intelligent, autonomous, emissions-free, crash-free, networked fleet that will begin chugging along our roads later this century. This transition period will mean short-term turmoil. Cars today are lousy with code that can’t be inspected, opening the way for scary hackings and cheats and also the unforeseen complications ofinteractions between robots and humans.

Some of these problems call for obvious fixes. As many have pointed outsince the VW admission, the code in our cars (and other life-threatening machines) shouldn’t be secret, but should allow for better inspection by authorities and independent experts. Another obvious fix is to replace the sort of lab-testing that VW was able to game with the kind of real-world analysis that uncovered its chicanery.

But to do that, we’ll need more technology, not less. We need more sensors in cars and on roads and a network of computers watching the data to figure out when vehicles are behaving in aberrant ways. In other words, the best way to prevent cheating isn’t to make our cars dumber, but to make the entire transportation grid smarter.

Look at how the VW cheating was uncovered. The software in the company’s diesel cars seems to have been designed to detect when a driver was pushing it through the specific routines that the Environmental Protection Agency uses in its emissions labs. When it detected these routines, the car’s software figured, “Hey, someone’s testing me!” and then put itself into an innocent, low-emissions mode that it didn’t use on the open road.

The cheating was discovered only when researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit automotive research group, working with scholars at West Virginia University, used smarter technology. To analyze VW’s emissions in real-world conditions, they used sophisticated devices mounted inside the trunks of two VWs and one BMW that collected and analyzed exhaust fumes as the cars drove along routes mainly in California.

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