Unethical behaviour by Volkswagen, the world’s largest car company is set to cost the company billions after admitting that it rigged its emissions testing.

On 18th September the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to Volkswagen, the largest automotive company in the world, alleging that some models of its four-cylinder diesel cars included software that circumvented EPA emissions standards for certain air pollutants. An EPA press release stated that using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health.

Within two days Volkswagen’s CEO Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn issued a statement saying “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public” adding “we do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law”.

The scandal widened on 22nd September when Michael Horn, Volkswagen’s top US executive, admitted that it had rigged its emissions testing in the United States to circumvent environmental regulations. “We totally screwed up” he said.

On the same day Volkswagen issued a statement saying that it was working at full speed to clarify irregularities concerning discrepancies relating to 11 million vehicles fitted with EA 189 engines. It also stated that it had set aside a provision of €6.5 billion to cover necessary service measures and other efforts to win back the trust of its customers. The following day Volkswagen’s CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned. “I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group” he said

Volkswagen has a clear sustainability and responsibility policy and publishes an annual group sustainability report in which it states:

As one of the world’s largest automakers, we bear a special responsibility for the environment and for humankind, and we intend to put our creative powers to good use.

The problem is that they put their creative powers to poor use, by cheating. So what went wrong? From a systemic point of view Volkswagen exhibited undesirable emergent behaviour.

Emergence is fundamental to system behaviour. Emergent properties are the collective properties of a system. They are the properties of the whole. For example, one collective property of a motor car is the number of people it can carry. Passenger capacity is not determined by a single part.

It is only as a system is assembled that its collective properties emerge. Collective properties may emerge quite quickly. Some may take many years to emerge and some may never emerge. Systems fail when they exhibit unexpected, undesirable properties.

But which Volkswagen system failed? Its ethics system, when unexpected unethical behaviour emerged.

The sheer scale of this deceptive unethical behaviour clearly indicates that many people were involved. Commercial software development of any kind requires specification. In the automotive industry specifications are written, reviewed and approved by professional engineers. And like any profession, engineers should work ethically. In Australia the professional body representing engineers, Engineers Australia has its own code of ethics, which promotes integrity, competence and leadership.

Many of those involved must have had misgivings about what was happening, yet the ethics system failed. If anyone reported their misgivings, no one acted on them.