ICCT hires computer whizz-kids to find out who besides VW uses ‘defeat devices’ in cars

By Mike Yuille | 30 March 2016

“We want to develop tests that governments could use to find conclusively whether a defeat device is being used” – ICCT source

Researchers who work for environmental regulators around the world are hiring computer hackers to examine the engine control units of several makes of car.

Exaro can reveal that the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which helped expose Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, wants the hackers to investigate whether several other car makers have been using “defeat devices” – special software in their engine control units (ECUs) – to cheat environmental tests.

The hacking of ECUs will be part of a wider project by the ICCT to develop a system for the world’s environmental regulators to test whether cars have “defeat devices”.

Regulators suspect that car makers other than VW have been using defeat devices, especially in diesel engines.

An IT specialist from the car industry told Exaro: “‘Dieselgate’ is not just a VW scandal, it is an industry issue. We need to test all vehicle makes.”

An ECU is a purpose-designed computer to control the engine. The ICCT’s hacking project is likely to be controversial because car makers regard ECU software as proprietary – a trade secret.

An ICCT source told Exaro why it is turning to hacking: “We want to develop tests that governments could use to find conclusively whether a defeat device is being used to cheat emissions testing.”

Another IT specialist who is helping with the project said: “Hacking by itself is not a silver bullet, and I do not think that all of the defeat devices will be so easy to find as the VW one.”

America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed in September that VW was using “defeat devices” in diesel engines to rig test results for emissions of nitrogen oxides. The EPA identified VW’s Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models, and Audi A3, in its findings.

VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including 8 million in Europe, are fitted with the defeat device.

The EPA has refused to say how exactly it found the cheating software, but it is including “defeat device screening” in all vehicle testing in America.

Insiders at the ICCT believe that the EPA hacked VW ECUs.

The US-based ICCT wants other countries’ regulators to develop similar skills. Headquartered in Washington DC, but with offices in San Francisco and Berlin, the ICCT is a research body that works for environmental regulators around the world, including the EPA.

IT specialists in the ICCT-led team will hack into the ECUs of several car makers, which are set to include Renault and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz.

There is no evidence that the two companies have used defeat devices, and they both deny it.

However, a testing programme in France in January led to the recall by Renault of 15,000 vehicles to address an engine “calibration error”. It also triggered a formal investigation by France’s anti-fraud agency, the DGCCRF.

The French government, which owns around 20 per cent of the car maker, has denied that Renault has used software similar to VW. Segolene Royal, ecology minister, said that Renault had used “no fraud software”.

Meanwhile, consumers are suing Daimler in the US, claiming that the company deceived them over 14 models of Mercedes-Benz cars, which, they allege, emit nitrogen oxides far above the maximum allowed.

Daimler rejects the lawsuit as “without merit”.

The uncovering of the scandal over diesel engines can be traced back to 2014 when the ICCT, working with West Virginia university, tested cars in real-world driving. Two VW models, Jetta and Passat, showed high emissions of nitrogen oxides.

The ICCT presented its findings at a US conference on vehicle emissions, attracting the interest of the EPA, which embarked on its own research that culminated in its violation notice against VW in September.

Exaro revealed last month how the European Union failed to tackle car makers over emissions cheating despite a clear warning in 2012.

And the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) discovered in 2011 that diesel cars were emitting up to four times maximum limits of poisonous nitrogen oxides in real-world tests. For parts of the test trips, emissions averaged 14 times the legal level.

Those findings are set to be raised in an inquiry by MEPs into what went wrong with the regulation of vehicle emissions in Europe.

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