Volkswagen software tricked emissions tests, feds say; hacking of customers is the real problem

Bob Sullivan

Bob Sullivan

A Volkswagen executive recently proclaimed that by 2020, all the automaker’s cars will be smartphones on wheels.

Turns out, Volkswagen cars were a little too smart for their own good. The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday accused the firm of using software to evade U.S.. emissions testing.  Computer code known as a “defeat device” recognized when the car was being tested and kicked on full emissions control systems.  The rest of the time the car chose…let’s say … “performance mode” over Earth-friendly mode.

The Obama administration has ordered the German automaker to recall half a million 4-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi cars from model years 2009-2015 cars and reprogram them.  The firm could also face fines that could range into the billions.  (At the moment, the firm hasn’t issued a statement.)

If accurate, such brazen use of software to evade federal law not only shocks the senses, it raises serious consumer protection issues. Many drivers are today rightly horrified that they were tricked into polluting the planet.  They also were driving cars with with performance that was artificially boosted — perhaps drivers would have chosen other cars if test drives of competitors’ models had been a fair fight.

In short, consumers have been hacked. Their cars’ software was doing things without their knowledge, just as if a virus writer had dropped a Trojan on their machines.

Recently, we talked about the very real fear drivers expressed to Kelley Blue Book — 4 out of 5 said car hacking will be a real problem in the next three years.

The survey referred to hacking by outside criminals, but there’s another kind of hacking going on here — when companies hack their own consumers.  Products we buy are now full of mysterious software, often instructed to do things we never imagined. TVs listen to our conversations; dating sites trick us into flirting with bots; our social networks and grocery stores talk about us; our web software tattles on us to the highest bidder;  and our cars trick emissions officials.

During an age when the very nature of advertising is constantly under siege, it makes sense that firms which already have a presence in our lives try to get a few more pieces of data out of us, and monetize that relationship just a little bit more. The temptation, if not desperation, is great.

But Friday’s Volkswagen story should be the beginning of some really serious soul searching, perhaps even a turning point for the Internet of Things.  It’s inevitable: our light bulbs, toasters, door bells, and our cars will all communicate some day soon.  We need a rock-solid ethic — not just laws, but a social morality — that machines should never do things unless people know all about them.  People should run the gadgets, not the other way around.

If we build a world of sneaky machines, we will deserve the consequences.

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