Volkswagen and the Case of the Rogue Engineers

Wesley: I'm a Rogue Demon Hunter now.

Cordelia: Wow. What's a rogue demon?

- Angel, "Parting Gifts"

So here's the short version of the story. At a Congressional hearing on October 8th, the head of Volkswagen's US business operations, Michael Horn, was being asked about the defeat devices on Volkswagen's diesel automobiles. Essentially, when the car was plugged in for an emissions test the software in the car would change the engine profile to drastically reduce CO2 emissions (and reduce fuel efficiency). When not plugged in fuel efficiency and performance would be high but so would CO2 emissions. He further elaborated, as detailed by Forbes magazine:
Management knew nothing about it, of course. “No supervisory meeting authorised this,” said Mr. Horn. “This was something individuals did.” So a handful of software engineers in Wolfsburg were solely responsible for a problem affecting an estimated 11m vehicles worldwide. Seriously.
As someone who has spent most of his professional life involved in software development, I find this absolutely hysterical. The problem with believing this statement is even if a handful of software engineers did decide to do this, someone should have caught this. Consider that:

  • Software engineers, not mechanical engineers, would be the ones to initiate this. Though driver software is important and necessary, it would need to be done in conjunction with mechanical engineers. There would need to be awareness that unaltered the engine was not meeting requirements and it would be the software engineers who took it on themselves to add this cheat. Without telling anyone.
  • The software would be subject to code review. It's possible that all the reviewers would be in on this.
  • The software would continue to exist in the code repository. Other engineers would modify software around this module and none would notice this.
  • The software would need to be verified. 
  • For this to work, no one in Volkswagen could ever test emissions without the software active.

Is this all possible? Technically, I would say yes. Though it is very, very unlikely. And if so it points to an extremely poor engineering culture that such a thing would go unnoticed.

So the way I see it there are two possibilities, both of which are bad for Volkswagen:
  1. Someone with a fair amount of visibility and authority authorized this. It might not have been the CEO. 
  2. A bunch of rogue engineers did this in secret without anyone noticing.

In both cases, it is possible the CEO did not know this occurred. However, there is a corporate responsibility nevertheless - the company is responsible for the behavior of its engineers. It is responsible for making sure they behave ethically, that they have ways to report unethical behavior. As an engineer at EMC, every year I need to take training on ethical behavior and what to do when I witness unethical behavior. As the person responsible for defect management, I make certain that my management and other organizations is absolutely aware of what problems we know about. There is no way I will risk my job - my career - to lie about the state of a product. It may not be my decision as to whether or not to release a product, but I absolutely make certain that those who do make the decision have the information they need. And I have never, ever, been asked to lie about the state of a product. (Disclaimer - I'm speaking on behalf of myself and not on behalf of my employer.)


Coppola, Frances. "Volkswagen's Latest Scapegoat: Attack Of The Rogue Coders." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

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