Can Automakers Be Trusted? Probably Not--And It Really Matters

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 27, 2016

Can we trust automakers these days? Frankly, I don’t think so. The revelations of wrongdoing coming thick and fast suggest that we might need another layer of verification to make sure that systems and software actually function as advertised. As we head to self-driving cars—with that software actually in control—quality control is going to be even more critical.

Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid takes the VW diesel scandal personally--he has one of these affected 2010 Jetta Sportwagens. (VW photo)The Volkswagen scandal was the first blow and it’s lingering like the death of 1,000 cuts. This week VW announced that a settlement is nigh—there will be buybacks. But aside from the fact that $18 billion will be set aside, almost all of the details are missing. We won’t get those until June, and meanwhile diesel owners are left hanging. Will they offer owners the original purchase price, or the current market value--driven down by the scandal itself?

Then Mitsubishi, a troubled presence on the U.S. market, admitted it cheated, too—with fuel economy ratings on the tiny “kei” cars (less than one liter) produced for Japanese domestic consumption. Not only did Mitsubishi fudge the results on its own cars, it did the same for vehicles it made for Nissan. Ratings were inflated five to 10 percent, getting some of these economy champs to 71.5 mpg.

Once more, we had an auto executive bowing his head in a public forum. “I feel responsible,” said Mitsubishi President Tetsuro Aikawa, who said he was unaware of the fuel economy trickery. “The wrongdoing was intentional. It is clear the falsification was done to make the mileage look better. But why they would resort to fraud to do this is still unclear.”

A Mitsubishi kei car--don't trust the fuel economy numbers. (SWGN/Flickr)More than 150,000 of Mitsubishi’s cars were involved, but also three times that many (468,000) produced for Nissan.

Back to Germany, where Daimler is also under a cloud for possible VW-like manipulation of diesel emission numbers. Daimler is “cooperating fully” with an Environmental Protection Agency investigation, the company said. That’s reassuring. French officials raided the headquarters of PSA, which encompasses big European players Peugeot and Citroen, looking for emissions violations. Guess what, the company is "fully cooperating with the authorities."

Houston, we have a problem. (Christopher Dombres/Flickr)Can we trust these guys, then? “Probably not,” Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst at Navigant Research, told me. Abuelsamid actually has a dog in this fight—he owns a 2010 VW Jetta wagon that’s one of the affected diesels. He’s personally offended. “It always makes me angry when companies cheat,” he said. “The rules are out there for everyone to follow, and if they can’t make a product that works within the criteria, they shouldn’t be selling it.”

But the problem goes well beyond some emissions and fuel economy numbers—to safety and cyber security. “As we get into vehicles that are more and more automated, we need to take a serious look at some sort of external verification of the capabilities and software on new vehicles,” Abuelsamid said.

The need for the electronic control systems on automated cars to work as advertised is pretty obvious, but programmers have also made it plain recently that today’s vehicles are easily hacked—and even steering, brakes and accelerator pedals can be manipulated from afar. “Automakers are finally taking this seriously,” Abuelsamid said, “but only in the last 12 to 18 months.”

Remember, in the sudden acceleration debacle affecting Toyotas, one of the big issues was the “by wire” operation of today’s cars. Instead of direct mechanical or hydraulic connections, all the essential controls of vehicles travel on electronic pathways these days.

Crash testing cars is still necessary, of course, but if we’re going to be safe we also need to crash test automotive software and control systems. I'd like to think that plans for that kind of oversight are already in the works. But the introduction of self-driving cars is happening much more chaotically than that. In fact, we're making it up as we go along. It's time for some long-range planning.

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