Software tool debunks defeat devices from VW, Fiat

Software tool debunks defeat devices from VW, Fiat

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

When in September 2015 environmental activist and scientists revealed that Volkswagen had installed a software in his diesel cars that fraudulently manipulated the exhaust gas values, an uproar went through the car industry. But the real big question was: Who else made use of such illegal tricks? The answer is that many did, but some succeeded in avoiding the appearance of fraud, using tricks of doubtful character anyway – things like an “engine temperature window” that switches off the exhaust gas treatment at low ambient temperatures – in one case even at ambient temperatures as high as 18°C. In many other cases, environmentalists simply were unable to provide a prove that such a defeat device exists; they failed due to the black box character of the engine control software running in the cars.

Now a team of scientists from the Ruhr University (RUB, Bochum, Germany) and the University of California, San Diego, along with the independent IT expert Felix Domke have developed a software tool that allows them to analyze the embedded engine control software in detail. The team tested 900 different versions of the engine control software for diesel vehicles from Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler from the past eight years. In 400 of them they found a device that switched off exhaust gas cleaning under regular driving conditions; under test stand conditions, the cleaning process was activated. The analysis also reveals how exactly the manufacturers were doing in the fraud.

The standard exhaust gas test on a test stand takes about 20 minutes. The tool developed by the scientists does not take that long; actually, it does not even need a car – instead of measuring exhaust gases, it analyses the software running in the engine control unit. In about two minutes of testing, the tool can detect whether or not the ECU contains a shutdown device. On the basis of the software, the researchers can understand how a car reacts to certain conditions, for example, which exhaust gas filter mechanisms are activated in a particular situation.

The IT experts did not only investigate the software from Volkswagen. The system of the Fiat 500X, against which the European Commission launched an official investigation on 17 May 2017, was also taken under the microscope. “Fiat’s defeat software is particularly crude”, concludes the scientist. While the VW software recognizes, through the sequence of accelerations and braking maneuvers, whether a vehicle is in a test cycle, Fiat uses the fact that a test cycle lasts 20 minutes – and simply switches off exhaust gas purification after just over 22 minutes.

Since the scientists tested software from a period as long as the past eight years, they can understand that the shutdown devices have been refined over the years. Their goal is now to develop their tool so that it can automatically analyze the motor control software of any manufacturer.

The results are presented by the Bochum researchers, including PhD students Moritz Contag and Andre Pawlowski from RUB’s Chair of System Safety, together with their US partners at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, May 2017 in San Jose, California. The corresponding publication can be viewed online:


Related articles:

Engineer was the whistle-blower in VW exhaust gas scandal

First consequences of VW scandal: Brutal cuts in R&D spending

Volkswagen has given engineering a black eye



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