There have been a number of stories on Techdirt recently about the increasing use of software in cars, and the issues that this raises. For example, back in April, Mike wrote about GM asserting that while you may own the car, the company still owns the software that runs it. You might expect GM to come out against allowing you to modify that software, but very recently we reported that it had received support from a surprising quarter: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had a particular concern that engine control software might be tampered with, causing cars to breach emissions regulations. We've just found out that the EPA was right to worry about this, but not for the reason it mentioned, as the The New York Times explains:
The Environmental Protection Agency issued [the German car manufacturer Volkswagen] a notice of violation and accused the company of breaking the law by installing software known as a "defeat device" in 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from model years 2009-15. The device is programmed to detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and to only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. Those controls are turned off during normal driving situations, when the vehicles pollute far more heavily than reported by the manufacturer, the E.P.A. said.
So, just as the EPA feared, software that regulates the emissions control system was indeed tampered with, though not by reckless users, but by the cars' manufacturer, Volkswagen (VW), which must now recall nearly half a million cars, and faces the prospect of some pretty big fines -- Reuters speaks of "up to $18 billion". The EPA's Notice Of Violation (pdf) spells out the details of what it calls the software "switch":
The "switch" senses whether the vehicle is being tested or not based on various inputs including the position of the steering wheel, vehicle speed, the duration of the engine's operation, and barometric pressure. These inputs precisely track the parameters of the federal test procedure used for emission testing for EPA certification purposes. During EPA emission testing, the vehicles' ECM [electronic control module] ran software which produced compliant emission results under an ECM calibration that VW referred to as the "dyno calibration" (referring to the equipment used in emission testing, called a dynamometer). At all other times during normal vehicle operation, the "switch" was activated and the vehicle ECM software ran a separate "road calibration" which reduced the effectiveness of the emission control system (specifically the selective catalytic reduction or the lean NOx [nitrous oxides] trap.) As a result, emission of NOx increased by a factor of 10 to 40 times above the EPA compliant levels, depending on the type of drive cycle (e.g. city, highway).
That trick was discovered by the West Virginia University's Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines & Emissions when studying the VW vehicles. Initially, VW claimed that the increased emissions were due to "technical issues" and "unexpected in-use conditions." But further tests confirmed the problem, and eventually VW admitted "it had designed and installed a defeat device in these vehicles in the form of a sophisticated software algorithm that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing."
It's significant that the trick was discovered through extensive mechanical testing. Assuming some form of DRM was employed, it would not have been possible to spot the cheating algorithm of the emissions control code because it would have been illegal to circumvent the software protection. This emphasizes once more the folly of allowing the DMCA to apply to such systems, where problems could be found much earlier by inspecting the software, rather than waiting for them to emerge in use, possibly years later.
The revelation about VW's behavior once more concerns code in cars, but there is a much larger issue here. As software starts to appear routinely in an ever-wider range of everyday objects, so the possibility arises for them to exhibit different behaviors in different situations. Thanks to programming, these objects no longer have a single, fixed set of features, but are malleable, which makes checking their conformance to legal standards much more problematic. When the VW story broke last week, Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, tweeted that this was an example of "The Internet of cheating things." I'm not sure whether she coined that phrase -- I'd not seen it before – but it encapsulates neatly a key feature of the world we are beginning to enter.
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