Volkswagen Scandal Reveals Design Flaws: The Need for Value Conscious Design

Co-authored with Neelke Doorn, Assistant Professor at Delft University of Technology

The fallout from the Volkswagen scandal continues to reverberate, with China being the latest country to launch an investigation into the car giant's behavior. In the midst of a global recall of some 11 million cars, the firm's share price has fallen by around 40%. The crisis began last month when the US Environmental Protection Agency, announced that Volkswagen has widely been using manipulative software in its diesel cars for the US market.

This software is able to detect when the vehicle is being subjected to an emissions test. During the test, the engine is automatically set to a clean program in order to meet all the necessary emissions standards. Back on the road, the software reverts to its regular program, meaning that the engine not only has more power but also produces higher emissions as a result.

In the regular mode, the actual emissions of smog forming nitrogen oxide (NOx), and other hazardous compounds proved to be substantially higher (between 15 and 35 times, depending on the model) than the legal norm, therefore violating The US Clean Air Act. Volkswagen presumably hoped that this would ensure that diesel cars, which are currently known as low power and high emissions in the US, could be marketed as powerful, yet low-emission vehicles. The scandal led to the resign of Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and may yet claim the heads of other senior executives.

Foul play in the automotive sector and the close links between industry and politics have now become the subject of significant media attention. However, another aspect has also come to the fore - one that had not received much reportage until now. It seems that software engineering, and engineering in general, are less 'neutral' than many had supposed. The classic image of technology as a neutral tool that can be used to 'good' or 'bad' ends - as embodied in the slogan of the American Rifle Association "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" - is utterly naïve and outdated.

Already in the design phase, engineering involves certain social and moral values and choices. The popularity of diesel cars in the first place is because they embody a key value in transport, namely fuel efficiency; diesel vehicles can go about 20% to 35% farther on a gallon of fuel than their gasoline counterparts. Their recent popularity in the US is due a decision of the Obama administration in 2012 to introduce more stringent Fuel Efficiency Standards. At the same time, diesel engines emit higher levels of particulates, which is why car manufacturers have been trying to reduce their emissions, either by designing less emitting engines, or by manipulating their software.

These values considerations in design have been reflected in various other fields such as in household appliances - first-generation Ladyshave could not be disassembled while the men shavers could - but also in car manufacturing: Honda unsuccessfully tried to market a pink car with special window tinting to combat wrinkles. Future autonomous or self-driving cars must be best equipped to resolve complex moral dilemmas. The crash-avoidance algorithm must therefore be programmed and biased toward certain choices. When an accident is inevitable, would the car rather crash into a small Mazda 3 on the left or the large Chevy Pickup truck on the right? Each choice has different implications for the car damage and passengers' safety. Things get even more intricate if the algorithm must decide to either hit a pedestrian or a biker, when an accident becomes unavoidable.

Technical design is thus not neutral and legislators often fail to keep pace. Choices already made at the design table will embody our social values and they will have bearing on the final use of that technology. It is therefore essential to consider the value choices embedded in technology, already during the design phase. This is what is called Value Sensitive or Value Conscious Design. The question is whether technologies can be designed in such a way as to incorporate desirable values and leave undesirable ones out. The matter of how to translate these abstract values means for the practice of design needs to be addressed too.

Values Conscious design may not be able to prevent the kind of deliberate fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, but it could well have revealed Volkswagen's design choices as dubious, to say the least.