While announcing a research program about the future of automotive technology in 2014, Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn said that the modern car was evolving into a mobile computer, a transition that would have revolutionary consequences for the future.
That statement proved true, albeit much more personally than Winterkorn intended.
The company recently admitted that software on several VW diesel models was tweaked to cheat on emissions tests, and as many as 11 million vehicles around the world could be affected by the rigged software.
On Wednesday, Winterkorn resigned after apologizing and promising cooperation and transparency as the company works through the scandal.
Information technology is indeed a big part of VW Group, one of the world’s biggest car companies. Its IT staff not only keeps corporate functions such as payroll, human resources, and marketing running smoothly, but it helps integrate technology into its vehicles.
About 10% of the company’s employees are involved in IT operations, research, and technology. Its worldwide IT department counts more than 10,000 employees and 46,000 researchers and technicians out of VW’s total 529,000 workers.
The IT group also works with car designers to incorporate technology in vehicles. Winterkorn and VW established the company’s Future Tracks program to build even more technology into vehicles.
“With our Future Tracks initiative, we intend to break new ground and to reorient our thinking and our action,” Winterkorn said. “For this purpose, the best developers, production experts, and strategists will all work together.”
Hardware and software control or monitor many functions in vehicles, including engine performance, braking systems, tire pressure, and, of course, emissions. Technologies also help cars maintain distances from other vehicles, stay in their lanes, and spot objects on the road. Technology also has expanded the range of entertainment and communications options in vehicles. And that doesn’t begin to get into self-driving cars.
And, of course, VW is on the right track with its research to integrate technology into vehicles. It should put better, safer, and more efficient autos on the road.
But someone — it could be inside VW or a third party (no one knows at this point) — took a wrong turn and altered emissions software.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the diesel cars were programmed to sense when emissions were being tested and to turn on equipment that reduced emissions. Turning off that equipment can result in better mileage and performance, but also higher emissions — up to 40 times the allowed amount of nitrogen oxide, a pollutant that can contribute to respiratory problems. A graphic in The New York Times shows how it was done.
The models affected include the VW Jetta, Beetle, and Golf from 2009 through 2015, the Passat from 2014-15 as well as the Audi A3, model years 2009-15.
VW said it was setting aside what amounts to a half-year of its profit, about $7.3 billion, to cover the cost of fixing the cars to comply with pollution standards and to cover other expenses such as fines as well as paying for civil lawsuits filed by customers.
In the meantime, VW has another job for the IT staff: finding out what exactly happened.
Tim Green has covered business, technology and science at newspapers and in higher education. At Hoover’s he covers computers and telecommunications. Follow him on Twitter.