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OM in the News: Volkswagen and Ethics

September 28, 2015
While VW cheated behind the scenes, it publicly espoused virtue, using the Super Bowl to run a commercial showing its engineers sprouting angel’s wings.

While VW cheated behind the scenes, it publicly espoused virtue, using the Super Bowl to run a commercial showing its engineers sprouting angel’s wings.

Volkswagen just got caught cheating, writes The New York Times (Sept. 27, 2015). The global auto giant finally admitted last week that it had installed software in 11 million diesel cars that misstated emissions tests, allowing the vehicles to spew far more deadly pollutants than regulations allowed. About 500,000 of the cars were sold in the U.S., including Passats made in Chattanooga. Disabling the emissions controls brought major advantages, including much better mileage — a big selling point in the firm’s push here.

In 2013, a nonprofit group proposed testing on-road diesel emissions from cars — something never done before, teaming up with California regulators. It was only by chance that the group’s testing of 3 vehicles began with 2 VWs and a BMW. Researchers hit the road, traveling 5 routes with varying terrain and traffic. Almost immediately, the 2 VWs set themselves apart from the BMW with much higher emissions. It was difficult to know what was going on: When the two VWs were placed on a “car treadmill,” they performed flawlessly.

By 2014, the California regulators alerted the E.P.A., which opened an investigation. VW fired back. “They tried to poke holes in our study and its methods, saying we didn’t know what we were doing,” said a researcher. “They were very aggressive. Meeting after meeting, they would try to explain it away.” For a year VW continued to maintain that there was a problem with the testers.

Then the regulators changed tack, examining the company’s software. Modern cars operate using millions of lines of computer code. The regulators made a startling discovery: A subroutine, or parallel set of instructions, was secretly being sent by the computer to what seemed to be the emissions controls. The revelations were stunning and VW’s push to dominate in America may have collapsed in one big lie.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Discuss the ethical implications of this case.
  2. How could so many VW engineers and executives have allowed the cover up to last for so long?
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