VW & Technology Cheating

I’ve been back in the office this week as I needed to cover for some staff with vacation this week. So I have been “head down” with news.

One of the big stories this week has been the Volkswagen “cheating emissions” story. As a story of the technology business (with a wide definition of technology), it was interesting. VW is a nowhere near the first company to have cheated in the area of emissions. Ford, Honda, GM, Caterpillar, Volvo and Renault were all fined for using “defeat devices” in their cars in the late ’90s (according to the NYT).

However, VW has positioned its brand as both “green” (it has a whole series of “BlueMotion Technologies” and BlueMotion models) and as very reliable and “straight”. The scandal strikes at the heart of the brand positioning that VW has built over the last 60 to 70 years.

Further, VW is an icon of German industry and the German people. German companies are well known for being very structured and regulated, so the scandal has impacted the country’s own self image. Back when I was young, banks were seen in the same light in the UK. Many large and small scandals over the years have meant that banks have lost the cachet that they had in the past and few in the UK would, these days, boast of “having worked in a bank” as being a major source of status, as they did when I started work.

One of my favourite German words, that we use in the UK because we simply don’t have a single word to express the concept, despite the huge number of words that English has captured and used over the years, is “schadenfreude”. The word is defined as “pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune” – a real human trait (and behind much of the joy of supporters of team sports). Before those in the display industry get too carried away in enjoying the pain of the automotive business or banking over cheating, it may be worth looking at technology cheating in our own back yard.

Back when we used to look closely at graphics cards, there were a numbers of scandals when it was discovered that graphics companies (S3 was one, ATI and nVidia are others that have been accused – try googling “graphics card benchmark cheating”) were building special detectors into their firmware and hardware to work out when the card was running a benchmark.

Display makers are also not immune. I remember many years ago, an LCD projector maker that admitted to us that it was going inside its units to switch off components before measuring brightness and contrast. I’ve often said “Lies, damn lies, statistics and then there’s Ansi lumens!”.

I was talking to a chip maker that dominated the amplifier market for CRT monitors, a number of years ago. The VP of sales told me that “90% of the monitors you see have the wrong video amplifier”. Volume monitor makers and suppliers to brands would submit samples for validation and testing with, for example, 80MHz bandwidth amplifiers, but after the first shipment or two, switch to lower bandwidth devices for volume production to save some cents. The image quality looked worse, but it was hard to compare and impossible for a user to spot.

And don’t get me started on response times…

So, we need to consider the Russian proverb “Доверяй, но проверяй” (doveryai, no proveryai) or, “trust but verify”, a phrase used by Ronald Reagan during negotiations with the Russians.

Some years ago, a UK PR company, when I was writing more for consumer magazines, accidentally published its list of UK technology journalists with a “scepticism” index that ranked writers as to how sceptical they were about makers’ claims. My name was about 80% down the list towards the most sceptical – I remember that I was just past the late Guy Kewney, someone I knew and respected and a position I was happy to accept!