Every vehicle company that has made it to the top has had its own scandal. Mitsubishi and Nissan cheated on fuel consumption tests, and Volkswagen did on vehicle emission tests, dropping the stocks by 25% and finally agreeing on a $14.7 billion settlement.
The fraud was discovered by a team of researchers from the University of California-San Diego, who presented their discovery at 38th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. Prior to the presentation, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted investigations for a year and made a decision to put the company on notice in 2015 for violating the Clean Air Act.
The lead investigator of the research team, Kirill Levchenko is a computer scientist at UC San Diego, who stated in a press release. “We were able to find the smoking gun. We found the system and how it was used. We found evidence of the fraud right there in public view.”
The secret to the fraud was a code running on the onboard computers. Whenever the computer detected that the emissions were being tested, it activated the emission curbing systems that significantly reduced the pollutants in the vehicle emissions. When the test is complete, the computer automatically deactivates the system.
The team looked through 900 different versions of the code, of which 400 were found to have information regarding the emissions test dodging. A piece of code was found labeled as “acoustic condition” that controls the sounds the engine makes, but the same code was found responsible for eluding the emission tests.
The standard emission tests use a chassis equipped with a dynamometer on which the car is placed. It measures the power outage of the engine while the vehicle follows a speed profile mimicking real on-road driving. The automaker was able to circumvent the tests as the test conditions had been standardized and made public. They could conveniently develop a system that could bypass the test and Volkswagen did as their code was found to have multiple profiles for many trials. Whenever the onboard computer detects any test being conducted, it activates the emission control system which reduces the amount of nitrogen oxide emitted. The actual amount of nitrogen emissions by the Volkswagen cars are up to 40 times as much as allowed by the EPA regulations, as per the researchers.