VW emission scandal: How prevalent is QA/QC cheating?

The scandal around Volkswagen cheating US EPA’s emission test process is known to almost everyone who follows current news.  To recap the known facts about 11 million vehicles (with 4-cylinder diesel engine) are affected around the world. Recalling and fixing those will cost VW about US$7.3 billion.  The company might face fines as much as US$18 billion by the US government.  Sales of all vehicles, including VW and Audi, that might be affected by this have been stopped, at least in the USA (not sure what’s happening around the world).

Now there is news that other car companies might be using the same / similar tricks to fool the emission testing process.

Shocking, right?  Hardly.  Businesses use all kinds of tricks to get past regulatory / legal requirements, and some supposedly pro-business people — from that world as well as politics — consider that necessary for doing business (or succeeding in it).

I would like to share an experience (from around 2009) we had with a prominent manufacturing company based in Kolkata, India, where our offshore software development center is located.  This company builds and supplies important parts for big name heavy machinery makers around the world.  Their production process seemed really old-fashioned — very manual, quite unmanaged, clearly inefficient, but still they supposedly were profitable and busy filling large orders.  In fact, the problem was that this company had a lot of orders to fulfill, but often their parts didn’t pass QA / QC due to defects in the production process, which led to the finished parts being rejected by their customers.

Our company was supposed to build a system to monitor their product testing process via automated data acquisition, check if technical requirements were met, and record results, which would be reviewed later on.  In fact, this system was supposed to be built as audit-ready, i.e., the company will show the recorded results to its buyers as proof of tested and passed products.

During one of the many discussions, one of their managers asked us to keep a backdoor to access and modify the test data, if needed.  The idea, he explained, was that say plating of a part was supposed to be between 70-72 micron thick.  But sometimes it might happen to be 68 micron (or may be 75 micron) due to some defect in the production process.  The automated system would measure the actual thickness and store it in the database, from which the reports will be generated for review and audit.  This company wanted a backdoor to the database backend, so that they could manipulate the stored thickness data if those were not within the permissible range, but came close, i.e., in the 67-69 or 73-75 range.  That means the Quality Control process for those parts are being compromised.  Is that a lot?  No.  Does it affect the final product quality, performance, reliability etc.?  I don’t know.  Is it dishonest?  Absolutely, no doubt.  I am glad, and relieved, that we didn’t happen to do that project for various reasons.

This must not be the only occasion, or area, where this company cut corners, and many more like it do the same, all across the world, on a regular basis.  Sometimes they get caught and/or it blows up in their face, there is a lot of hoopla about it, and then everyone goes back to normal life, without knowing how many more such corner cutting are going on all over the place.  It happens in construction, in production of household goods to electronics, in medical — medicines and devices, in automobiles (as in the case of VW), and almost all industries.

What can we do about it?  I am not sure.  These cheating systems (software — yes, that’s why I picked up this topic) have been developed by some software (and hardware?) engineers, who probably knew what was going on, but did it as part of their job.  If we individually do not stand up for what is right, we will collectively keep on suffering the results of all of our misdeeds.  Could we have stood up and said No to that customer’s demand for the “backdoor”?  As a small software company, under serious pressure at that time, the potential new customer was quite important for us.  To be very honest, I am just glad that (potential) customer ultimately decided not to work with us on that project.

I am sure a lot of people have encountered deliberate and willful compromises with quality, reliability, performance of products they use and depend on everyday. So, VW’s case is not shocking (in a way), because it’s not that we didn’t know something like this could be happening for some product or the other.