Volkswagen: The Challenger moment for mechatronics

I am old enough to have practised mechatronics long before the term was invented around 1990. I learned much in the context of 1970s military aerospace, and applied those lessons in developing sheep shearing robots in the 70s, 80s and 90s. (Youtube video)

When I heard about the Volkswagen scandal I personally felt let down and depressed. I was shocked. Not just because it occurred in a German company with an impeccable reputation. It was because engineers in a discipline that I helped nurture and develop through my career have let the rest of us down, displaying a dark side of their humanity.

I immediately thought about the implications for our mechatronics discipline. Here is our “Challenger” moment. The Challenger space shuttle disaster has been the pre-eminent ethics case study used in the engineering community for several decades. From now on, Volkswagen will take its place, at least for mechatronic engineers.

This is not the first time that software has been deliberately designed to deceive. Most computer viruses, trojans and malicious email embody similar human intentions. However, this is the first well-publicised case that I am aware of in which mechatronic engineers are entirely responsible (see references below). Mechatronics brought the promise of intelligent machines: we have been able to overcome so many mechanical engineering limitations. Yet, as one might suspect, human intelligence has a dark side and it is inevitable that that dark side would one day be embodied in mechatronic software.

Now we in the mechatronics community have to reach out to our friends in industries such as banking, finance and securities who have long known that software engineers are vulnerable to normal human failings.

We must teach our young engineers and students about ways to find not only unintentional errors in software and machine designs, but also intentional and malicious perversions of intent. Micro- and embedded computer systems have the capacity for highly complex software coding, making it easier than ever for someone to incorporate malicious code without being noticed. We all know how difficult it can be to find unintentional errors: malicious, hidden coding is likely to be much more difficult to trace.

It is worth inspecting the announcement made by the US Environmental Protection Authority because it shows that the problem involves cars released as early as 2010. This issue has been known, at least by some people, for several years. According to recent reports, it was well known inside Volkswagen for a year before it was brought to the attention of the board of directors.

Mechatronics will never be the same again.

The scope of our work has just become all that more complex and troublesome. We will come to yearn for the time when machine design was entirely a mechanical discipline. From now on we will more fully appreciate the possibilities that mechatronics brings with it. Not all of them ones that we would wish for.

In my book, I explain that ethics is not just the desirable moral virtue for engineers. Ethics has real, tangible, technical and commercial value. The collapse in the Volkswagen share price provides no better illustration of that. It is time that ethics teaching becomes a core, mainstream topic in engineering.

What do you think about this?

Added October 1st: Other relevant references, thanks to Thomas B. and others who sent them after this was written and posted on September 30:

Wikipedia on the Volkswagen Scandal lists several earlier instances of defeat devices being fitted to cars to maniulate emission test results, towards the end of the article (as at October 1).

AJC.com provide an informative article on the GM Ignition switch scandal that caused many deaths in accidents, in which GM were in denial for maybe a decade before being forced to recall about 1,600,000 vehicles in the USA.

Added October 3rd:

There are precedents stretching back a long way on this issue which have emerged thanks to the current level of interest on the issue.

The US Department of Justice has an informative background paper on efforts to deceive emissions regulators by diesel engine manufacturers.

Bloomberg published an informative review paper on car makers who have tried similar ideas.

There is debate among lawyers and regulators in the US on how best to achieve a satisfactory regulatory regime.


2 comments

  1. Yes, I agree with the remarks. We cover ethics in our engineering programs just to stress its importance, in a light way, assuming that it is an assumed attribute our students and graduates have or will have. Yes , there is an increasing need to incorporate it in our curriculum more obviously with clearly articulated outcomes.

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  2. Pingback: #8 Environmental & Social Capital | sustainedengineering


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