Preventing Future Volkswagen-like Scandals

This article first appeared on Digital News Asia.

I am sure that most would have heard about the recent software scandal at Volkswagen. It has been widely reported by all international media and many have weighed in with analyses on why it happened.

It has even been likened to Libor on wheels, and this scandal may just change the entire automotive industry.

In the immediate aftermath, the price of VW shares have tanked by 30% and the chief executive officer has resigned. Millions of VW vehicles are being recalled and lawyers are tripping over each other to file class-action lawsuits. Even VW subsidiaries Audi and Skoda have been implicated.

While the immediate repercussions are grave, nobody really knows how far the fallout of this scandal will reach.

Personally, I think that this scandal presents an opportunity for reforming a part of the industry.

The automotive industry has always played a leading role in setting standards for software reliability and safety. Now, it has the chance to lead the way in ethical software standards too.

While there are questions about how such an unethical thing could have gotten past management, with the associated implications such questions bring, what’s shocking to me is how the engineers who have a professional responsibility of ensuring design safety could have written the software to lie about potentially harmful emissions.

A comparison has been made between the VW software engineers with the accountants in the Enron case who collaborated with the organisation to create accounting loopholes, and who failed to protect the public by not providing proper auditing.

Therefore, some feel that the solution is to do a better job of teaching engineering ethics.

With all due respect, I don’t think that teaching ethics is going to solve the problem of gaming the system. It’s clear that this VW scandal is not merely the product of rogue engineers.

I would humbly submit that the only way to prevent this ethical problem is by increasing transparency in the design of automobiles. As far as software is concerned, this can be accomplished by adopting an open-source philosophy for car manufacturers.

With an open-source philosophy, anyone would be able to study and verify that the cars work as advertised. No car manufacturer would allow their engineers to cheat if they would be discovered by a simple examination of the software source code.

In fact, a source code audit should be made part of any compliance process.

In addition, not only does providing open-source software ensure a permanent fix for this ethical problem, it has also been shown to improve overall software quality.

The previous automotive software scandal of Toyota’s killer firmware might have been detected earlier or avoided altogether if the source code had been made available for examination and audit.

With modern cars being very much software driven, it is also going to be a juicy target for hackers, as recent cases with Jeep and BMW have shown.

Hackers can now remotely kill a vehicle while it is moving on the road. While recent hackings were done by researchers, you can be sure that there are those who will do this for nefarious reasons. Our very lives are at stake.

Therefore, it is crucial for vehicle safety that all software must be securely written and audited. This cannot be provided for as long as vehicle manufacturers hide their software behind an opaque wall.

It is a well-established mantra in information security that security by obscurity is not security. While merely opening up the software will not guarantee security, it is at least a step in the right direction.

This open-source philosophy is already so deeply ingrained in the computer software industry that it should not be difficult to implement in the automotive software industry.

All that is required is a mind-set change in the boardroom and this scandal might just provide the necessary impetus to make that change.

One of my big frustrations with driving a car is with the dilapidated state of its software. While the embedded software that runs modern cars seem to be stuck in the 20th century, it doesn’t need to be.

Automotive software has already seen more innovation in the last few years than it has in the previous decade. It is now set to drive the growth of the modern car.

With the automotive industry set for an industry-wide software disruption by the likes of Tesla, Google and Apple, I don’t think that the traditional car manufacturers have a lot to win by protecting their software silos.

Instead, they could choose to lead by adopting a standardised software platform that is open-sourced and is widely available for all automotive use.

Look what such a thing did for the entire smartphone industry and how it changed the lives of billions around the world.

It is time for Volkswagen to issue an industry-wide call for a major collaboration on a standards-compliant and open-source automotive software platform.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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