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Hackers to probe engine control units amid emissions scandal

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

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

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which helped expose the Volkswagen 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, the investigative website Exaro has revealed.

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

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

An ECU is a computer purpose-designed to control a car’s 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 explained why the organisation 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 the project said: “Hacking by itself is not a silver bullet, and I do not think all the defeat devices will be as easy to find as the VW one.”

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

VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including eight million in Europe, are fitted with the devices.

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

Insiders at the ICCT believe the EPA hacked VW ECUs.

The ICCT, headquartered in Washington DC but with offices in San Francisco and Berlin, is a research body that works for environmental regulators globally, including the EPA. It wants other countries’ regulators to develop similar investigatory skills.

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

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

Renault recalled 15,000 vehicles

However, a testing programme in France in January led to Renault recalling 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 about 20% of Renault, has denied the car maker has used software similar to VW, and ecology minister Segolene Royal said Renault had used “no fraud software”.

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

Daimler has rejected the lawsuit as “without merit”.

The discovery 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, the 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 began its own research, culminating in its violation notice against VW in September.

Exaro revealed last month how the European Union had 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 the maximum limit of poisonous nitrogen oxides in real-world tests. During parts of the test trips, emissions reportedly 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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