By Kim Smiley
The automotive industry was recently rocked by Volkswagen’s acknowledgement that the company knowingly cheated on emissions testing of several models of 4-cylinder diesel cars starting in 2009. The diesel cars in question include software “defeat devices” that turn on full emissions control only during emissions testing. Full emissions control is not activated during normal driving conditions and the cars have been shown to emit as much as 40 times the allowable pollution. Customers are understandably outraged, especially since many of them purchased a “clean diesel” car in an effort to be greener.
The investigation into this issue is ongoing and many details aren’t known yet, but an initial Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis, can be created to document and analyze what is known. The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to fill in a Problem Outline with the basic background information and how the issue impacts the overall organizational goals. The “defeat device” issue is a complex problem and impacts many different organizational goals. The increased emissions obviously impacts the environmental goal and the potential health impacts of those emissions is an impact to the safety goal. Some of the specific details are still unknown, like the exact amount of the fines the company will face, but we can safely assume the company will be paying significant fines (on the order of billions) as a result of this blatant violation of the law. The Volkswagen stock price also took a major hit and dropped more than 20 percent following the announcement of the diesel emissions issues. It is difficult to quantify how much the loss of consumer confidence will impact the company long-term, but being perceived as a dishonest company by many will certainly impact their sales. A large recall that will be both time-consuming and costly is also in Volkswagen’s future. Depending on the investigation findings, there is also the potential for criminal prosecution because of the intentional nature of this issue.
Once the overall impacts to the goals are defined, the actual Cause Map can be built by asking “why” questions. So why did these cars include “defeat devices” to cheat on emissions tests? The simple answer is increased profits. Designing cars that appeared to have much lower emissions than they did in reality allowed Volkswagen to market a car that was more desirable. Car design has always included a trade-off between emissions and performance. Detailed information hasn’t been released yet, but it is likely that the car had improved fuel economy and improved driving performance during normal driving conditions when full emissions control wasn’t activated. Whoever was involved in the design of the “defeat device” also likely assumed the deception would never be discovered, which raises concern about how emissions testing is performed.
The design of the “defeat device” is believed to work by taking advantage of unique conditions that exist during emissions testing. During normal driving, the steering column moves as the driver steers the car, but during emissions testing the wheels rotate, but the steering column doesn’t move. The “defeat device” software appears to have monitored the steering column and wheels to sense when the conditions indicated an emissions test was occurring. When the wheels turned without corresponding steering wheel motion, the software turned the catalytic scrubber up to full power, reducing emissions and allowing the car to pass emissions tests. Details on how the “defeat device” was developed and approved for inclusion in the design haven’t been released, but hopefully the investigation into this issue will be insightful and help understand exactly how something this over the line occurred.
Only time will tell exactly how this issue impacts the overall health of the Volkswagen company, but the short-term effects are likely to be severe. This issue may also have long-reaching impacts on the diesel market as consumer confidence in the technology is shaken.
To view an Outline and initial Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.