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Devorah Akhamzadeh

December 12, 2017

CST 373 - Ethics in Comm

Volkswagen Emissions Scandal

As an online student pursuing a Computer Science degree at California State University,

Monterey Bay, I am not taking the traditional college path. CSUMB's online computer science

degree has allowed me to obtain a comprehensive education without having to attend on

campus classes. Throughout my schooling career, I have attended private all-girls elementary

and high school. Upon graduating from high school, I attend college abroad, where I received a

degree in elementary education. Upon returning to Los Angeles, I was offered a position as an

elementary school teacher. Within a couple of months I transitioned to the EdTech department,

working with teachers and technology specialists to seamlessly integrate technology into the

classroom environments. Although I enjoyed my job, I knew elementary education was not for

me, and that I would further pursue a degree. I researched programs that would allow me to

obtain a Bachelor’s while working full time, and CSUMB CSIT degree seemed an appropriate fit.

I had a deep interest in computer science and the CSUMB program structure appeared give a

well developed and comprehensive education. Upon graduating from CSUMB, I am

contemplating applying to the Georgia State University/Udacity Master’s in Computer Science

program, and further developing my education.

As a current CST 373, Ethics in Communication and Technology student, I am learning to

decipher and appreciate the minute ethical considerations involved in all aspects of software

and application development. Be it concerns regarding privacy, piracy or social consequences;

the majority of software development has a correlating ethical discussion. As of December

2015, Volkswagen has been under intense scrutiny by both the media and the government. The

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Volkswagen had been using a defeat device

to fabricate results during emissions testing. Many Volkswagen models were releasing nitrous

oxide in quantities that far surpassed the legal amount in the United States. However, each of

these models successfully passed emissions testing due to software installed by Volkswagen.

The software detected when the car was being tested, and it switched the mode of the car to

emit far less nitrous oxide than it ordinarily did.

Undeniably, Volkswagen’s actions were unethical, however the determination as to who

is responsible and should serve the consequences is a difficult issue. This case study will explore

the motivation for Volkswagen’s actions, the wide-ranging consequences, and the ethical

impact on the automobile industry and the software industry. Volkswagen used software to

play the system and cheat their customers and the government. As the world becomes

increasingly technology oriented, and software becomes prevalent in every area, it is important

that software developers and users know how to properly exploit software’s power. Its impact

is not limited to the automotive industry; it is an example for software developers and users

worldwide about the ethical implications and applications of software use.

The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal, also referred to as “emissions gate” or “dieselgate”

first became public in September 2015 through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)

notification to the German automaker Volkswagen Group that it had violated the Clean Air Act,

which was designed to cut pollution on a national level. In the 1970’s due to increasing

concerns from environmentalists, economists, senators and non-governmental organizations,

Congress enacted the Clean Air Act (CAA), along with forming the EPA. Under the Clean Air Act,
the EPA sets limits on certain air pollutants including nitrous oxide ​(Environmental)​. Nitrous

oxide is one of the reactants of particle pollution, which can affect the lungs, causing

respiratory illness, chronic bronchitis, or worsen asthma symptoms.​(​EPA​)​. Additional, nitrogen

oxides are some of the main ingredients in ground-level ozone, a critical component of smog.

Motor vehicles are some of the largest contributors to air pollution, and are responsible for

more than half of nitrous oxide emissions. Due to growing concerns from scientists and

environments, regarding the effects nitrous oxide and remaining criteria pollutants have on

humans and the environment,the Clean Air Act which set federal standards for those

pollutants, was enacted ​(Environmental)​ . Thus, motor vehicle manufacturers had to ensure

that their company’s vehicles were meeting EPA standards.

Although United States standards focus on nitrous oxide emissions, the European

standards target carbon dioxide emissions instead. Diesel cars have a lower carbon dioxide

emissions output than ordinary cars, leading to diesel models easily exceeding Europe’s

standards for carbon dioxide emissions. Before Volkswagen developed the turbocharged direct

injection (TDI) in the 1980’s, diesel cars were obsolete due to poor performance and exhaust

release​(Fisher)​. Volkswagen’s TDI model allowed for greater engine efficiency and decreased

emissions output, changing the current of obsolete diesel engines. With the creation of the TDI

models, European standards for emissions were kinder to Volkswagen than American standards

because they focused on carbon dioxide instead of nitrous oxide. According to Eugenio J.

Miravete, political science professor at the University of Texas, Europe was perhaps less

focused on NOx emissions than CO2 emissions because Eastern European countries, including
Russia, had few regulations on NOx, and any improvements to the environment would be

virtually stamped out by them (Fisher, 2015).

Due to the United State’s tighter regulations of NOx, few European diesel engines,

managed to enter into the US market. Yet in 2001, Volkswagen claimed their company’s cars

met emissions standards for NOx in the United States, and began selling them there. However,

they had merely inserted a defeat device that sensed when the car was under testing

conditions, and regulated the emissions at that time only. According to the EPA, a defeat device

refers to

“an auxiliary emission control device that reduces the effectiveness of the emission

control system under conditions which may reasonably be expected to be encountered

in normal vehicle operation and use.”

Title 42 of the Clean Air Act explicitly forbids defeat devices:

“Under regulations provided in this part, [it is illegal] for any person to manufacture or

sell, or offer to sell, or install, any part or component intended for use with, or as part

of, any motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine, where a principal effect of the part or

component is to bypass, defeat, or render inoperative any device or element of design

installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine in compliance with regulations

under this subchapter, and where the person knows or should know that such part or

component is being offered for sale or installed for such use or put to such use.”

(Environmental Protective Agency, 1990)

Although Volkswagen is the prime example used when discussing defeat devices,

ultimately they were not the first company to utilize such technology. In 1970s some cars were

found to be rigged with "defeat devices" that turned off the emission systems when the air

conditioning was turned on. Others had sensors that activated pollution controls only at the

temperature regulators used during the tests. In 1974 the EPA accused VW of installing defeat

devices in some of its models, and VW was fined $120,000 for it. Additionally companies such

as Ford, Toyota and General Motors have been accused with similar charges. In 1995 General

Motors agreed to pay $45 million after being indicted of circumventing pollution controls on

470,000 Cadillac luxury sedans. The cars' 4.9-liter V8 engines were tuned to turn off pollution

controls when the air conditioning ran ​(Jeff Plungis)​. Although other companies have had

similar scandals, the scandal now engulfing VW, is unique both for its size and digital


Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety

explains “The concept of a defeat device has always been there, because there's such an

incentive for the manufacturers to cheat on the emissions tests."​(Plungis)​. Analysts have

attributed Volkswagen’s wrongdoing to their desire to grow in size and to become one of the

leading automobile manufacturers worldwide. Under Ferdinand Piëch and his successors, “the

Volkswagen was run like an empire, with overwhelming control vested in a few hands, marked

by a high-octane mix of ambition and arrogance—and micromanagement—all set against a

volatile backdrop of epic family power plays, liaisons, and blood feuds. It’s a culture that

mandated success at all costs.”​(“Inside Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud”)​. Volkswagen’s goals were

audacious: it aspired to be the biggest seller of cars in the world under Piëch protégé Martin
Winterkorn. Sales of U.S. diesels were crucial to the mission, yet automobile sellers and

consumers were scornful of the environmental effects of diesel cars. With Volkswagen’s new

“clean diesel” approach, which promised fair prices, efficiency, performance and environmental

consciousness, VK slowly entered the market.

It is still unclear which executives were aware of the defeat device and who was

responsible for creating it. In a statement to the press ,Volkswagen chairman Hans Dieter

Pötsch, blamed the scandal on a “chain of errors,” and suggests that executives were not

responsible or aware of the deception ​(Boston)​. Much of the blame has been placed on a small

group of employees, likely engineers, deflecting the blame from the leadership. Still, many

executives, including Winterkorn, either resigned or were ousted from the company. In

September 2016, James Liang, an engineer at Volkswagen for over 30 years, was indicted on

criminal charges. There are both ongoing internal and federal investigations, and Volkswagen

has agreed to pay billions to both dealers, customers and the government as compensation for

their crimes.

Initial media coverage of the Volkswagen scandal merely presented a list of facts as to

what occurred, in addition to sound bites from both the government and Volkswagen. Despite

the seemingly consistent and fact oriented coverage, customers, environmentalists, and federal

organizations condemned the company. Many customers chose the VW cars due to the

environmental benefits of the car, so these customers were understandably upset that the

company had lied to them. One customer describes his feelings of betrayal: “They lied to me,

both directly and indirectly. They’ve dumped pollutants into the atmosphere that my family, my

friends and I breathe. They’ve also made me an unwitting and unwilling accomplice in their
environmental crime.” Another customer said that the scandal “kind of makes [him] sick, and

certain [he] won’t go back to Volkswagen after this.” Others called the scandal a “disheartening

atrocity” and many said they would never again be a customer of Volkswagen (Bartlett, 2015).

Volkswagen had claimed that their cars met the standards of the EPA, but in fact it exceeded

the EPA standards by up to forty times the allowed emissions. The government also responded

harshly; they fined Volkswagen severely and opened an investigation into the company.

Volkswagen dealerships were also angry, because their trustworthiness and sales declined.

Aside from the consumers and environmentally, software engineers were also adversely

affected by the scandal. While VW consumers were viewed as the victims of the scandal,

software engineers were casted in a negative role; that of a perpetrator. In attempts to deflect

blame from the managements, VW laid the blame solely within the engineering department

(Boston, 2015). This phenomenon can be concerning for engineers across the board.

The determination as to who is responsible for this emission scandals and consequently

who should pay reparations, and what the consequences should be is a complex dilemma. Even

if Volkswagen blames the scandal on the engineers, and even if amongst the engineers a

“normalization of deviance” had occurred, Volkswagen as a whole must take responsibility.

Additionally, even if executives were unaware of the software device, they should also receive

some form of retribution. It was not for no reason that the engineers created the software

device. While he was not CEO at the time of the scandal, Ferdinand Piech created a culture at

Volkswagen that bred the deviance. Piech proudly spoke about how he created a demanding,

uptight culture in Volkswagen. When engineering a car, he told his employees, “you have six

weeks to achieve world-class body fits. I have all your names. If we do not have it in six weeks, I
will replace all of you” (Smith, 2016). While the cheating may have occurred at the bottom of

the company, the culture came from the top and bled down to the bottom. Both the utilitarian

and ethical egoism frameworks would therefore implicate the managers as well as the

engineers. While they may not have explicitly done or partaken in anything illegal, the

managers created a culture that led to such harm and self-destruction, and that in it of itself is


According to the Utilitarian framework, good, ethical choices are those that produce the

least harm and the greatest happiness. Thus assuming that the EPA’s regulations were in the

best interests of humanity and the environment and were not politically motivated, the

Utilitarian approach would place sole blame on Volkswagen. Environmental protection provides

the most utility for humans; it keeps the environment clean and healthy. Polluting the

environment is an unethical action because it produces greater harm. According to a joint study

by Harvard and MIT, Volkswagen’s emission will have caused up to 60 premature deaths.

However, if Volkswagen recalls all affected vehicles by 2016, more than 130 premature deaths

can be prevented ​(Chu)​. While Volkswagen has agreed to compensate their customers

monetarily and to fix the software, it has been more reluctant to recall the vehicles. The

Utilitarian approach would dictate that the correct ethical choice would be to recall every

affected vehicle. The fine itself is hard to determine according to this approach, as it does not

play into the “greatest good” equation.

Egoism, or the Self-Interest perspective, dictates moral agents should act in their own

self-interest and have an obligation to guide their conduct by a rational calculation as to what is

best for them. Initially VW followed the Egoism perspective and acted in their own self interest
by creating a defeat system, however ultimately those actions only benefited the company in

the short terr. Volkswagen had been trying to expand their company and to become the leading

manufacturer of automobiles, and it was only possible to do that with the expansion of their

diesel sales in the United States. Thus, such software would seem to be necessary to their

pursue their goal, which would make such an action ethically sound according to the Egoism

framework. However, the company did not act in its long-term self interest. Volkswagen

damaged its reputation with its customers and now must invest in rebuilding trust and polishing

the company’s reputation. Volkswagen should have evaluated their actions in terms of

long-range consequences, and assumed the possibility that such a device could get caught. It is

in the best interest of every company to have a reputation as a reliable, honest, legal and moral

business. Cheating customers and false advertising may have benefited the company for five

years, but it was a myopic solution that only served to drag the company further away from the

top spot.

The Cultural Relativism framework can also be adapted for this scenario. Cultural

Relativism is the view that moral or ethical systems, which vary from culture to culture, are all

equally valid and no one system is “better” than any other. This is based on the idea that there

is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is a product of

society. Therefore, any opinion on morality or ethics is subject to the cultural perspective of

each person. Ultimately, this means that no moral or ethical system can be considered the

“best,” or “worst,” and no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered “right”

or “wrong” ​(“Cultural Relativism”)​ . Cultural relativism bases ethical judgment on societal

norms, or the law, “ If an action is not illegal, it is permitted.” Here social culture is equated
with law because laws are an expression of national cultural values. They need not be fixed or

constant values. Under this framework, Volkswagens actions can be deemed unethical, as

defeat devices are illegal in the United States.

Although an exact scenario may never occur again, there will certainly be ethical issues

that continue to plague automobile companies. Firstly, companies are now manufacturing

electric and driverless cars. Volkswagen forecasts that between 20 to 25 percent of their sales

will be electric cars by 2025. Electric cars also have a “green” image, and Volkswagen needs to

ensure that they are fully transparent with both their customers and the EPA. Driverless cars

have a host of ethical issues associated with them as well.

There are implications for the software industry as well. After ostensibly being

pressured by executives, software developers created unethical and illegal software. There

needs to be a two-fold solution for this. Firstly, software engineers, and anyone working in

technology, should be well versed in the ethics of technology and business. Engineers hold

tremendous power; software that one person wrote can be distributed and used worldwide.

Engineering isn’t just solving technical problems. It is a field that forces one to make serious

ethical choices with repercussions of a large magnitude. Every engineer should be required to

take an ethics course in college, and companies should regularly hold professional development

for engineers and discuss ethical problems that may arise in the workplace. Secondly, upper

management has to work in tandem with engineering instead of demanding a plan. Much of

this problem surfaced because engineers were instructed to create a car that was impossible

under the constraints they had. In many companies, including Volkswagen, the pressure

oftentimes concentrates around the engineers, and non-technical management expects them
to be able to fix or create anything. The culture in a company should be demanding, but it

should also be reasonable. Executives need to work with the engineering team, not intimidate

them and hang their jobs over their heads.

With our increasingly wired world, software will only become more prevalent in our

lives. Nearly every few feet has something that is backed by software. If the ethical issues are

not sorted out in software’s youth, it will be abused and ethically misused and created.

Software is now taking on a human-like quality and is being entrusted with decisions. Walter

Vannini, a digital consultant and researcher, writes that “in just a few years, understanding

programming will be an indispensable part of active citizenship” ​(Vannini)​.

Prior to researching this scandal, I felt no personal involvement. However, now that I

understand the implications not just for automobile engineers, but for software engineers as

well, I have refined my approach to the scandal. While I had previously seen the issue as

black-and-white - that Volkswagen should recall all of their cars and all of their upper

management should leave- it is more nuanced than I initially perceived it. Both engineers and

management are implicated in this scandal.

My ethical framework is shaped by the Jewish set of laws and ethics, called Halacha.

Halacha dictates that the person ultimately responsible for such a scenario is the one who

actually did the cheating. While executives are by no means halachically absolved, the

consequences for them would be less severe. Judaism values the power of the individual and

holds him/her responsible for his/her choices. Thus, even if the person may suffer a loss, s/he is

still accountable for the choices s/he made. The Volkswagen engineers may have had their jobs

in jeopardy, but ultimately, they still made the wrong choice. While the circumstances that led
to the cheating was not their fault, the choice was ultimately theirs, and they are accountable.

Analyzing the Volkswagen scandal through frameworks other than my own showed me how

each party, both the engineers and the executives, can be held accountable.

While it is unfortunate that such a scandal occurred, I believe that such an event was

necessary at the dawn of the technological revolution. The magnitude of the media coverage it

received was proportionate to the severity of the story’s implications. This is not just a story of

one company’s transgression. To only see this scandal as a Volkswagen story would be

shortsighted; it is a story of technology, ethics, and the future.

Works Cited

Boston, William. “Volkswagen Blames ‘Chain of Mistakes’ for Scandal.” ​MarketWatch​,

2-10​. Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

Chu, Jennifer. “Study: Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheat to Cause 60 Premature Deaths in U.S.” ​MIT


Accessed 12 Dec. 2017.

“Cultural Relativism.” ​​,​. Accessed 12 Dec. 2017.

Environmental, Protection Agency. “The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act.”

Environmental Protection Agency​, 2007,​.

EPA​. ​​. Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

Fisher, Daniel. “VW’s Diesel Was A Creation Of EU Regulators.” ​Forbes​, 2 Oct. 2015,


“Inside Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud.” ​Fortune​,​. Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

Jeff Plungis, Bloomberg News. “Carmaker Cheating on Emissions Almost as Old as Pollution

Tests.” ​​, 23 Sept. 2015,


Plungis, Jeff. “Forty Years of Greenwashing: The Well-Travelled Road Taken by VW.” ​The

Independent​, 25 Sept. 2015,


Vannini, Walter. ​Aeon​.​. Accessed

12 Dec. 2017.