Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

devil in defeat device details

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Bob Lutz affirms what I and many other technical types have been saying:

Ferdinand Piëch, the immensely powerful former chief of Volkswagen’s supervisory board, is more than likely the root cause of the VW diesel-emissions scandal. Whether he specifically asked for, tacitly approved, or was even aware of the company’s use of software to deliberately fudge EPA emissions testing is immaterial.


It’s what I call a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation. He just says, “You will sell diesels in the U.S., and you will not fail. Do it, or I’ll find somebody who will.” The guy was absolutely brutal.

I imagine that at some point, the VW engineering team said to Piëch, “We don’t know how to pass the emissions test with the hardware we have.” The reply, in that culture, most likely was, “You will pass! I demand it! Or I’ll find someone who can do it!”

In these situations, your choice was immediate dismissal or find a way to pass the test and pay the consequences later. Human nature being what it is—if it’s lose your job today for sure or lose your job maybe a year from now, we always pick maybe a year from now.

Add to Volkswagen’s woes, the discovery of a second and completely separate range of impacted vehicles, powered by the three litre V6 turbo-diesel, mere weeks after making fairly explicit denials of any such possibility.

Audi USA has gone on the record to clarify details regarding the emissions testing issue with the Volkswagen Group’s 3.0-litre V6 TDI engine and how the company is progressing with the US authorities.

At the beginning of November, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a second notice of violation against the Volkswagen Group, claiming that certain cars powered by the company’s 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 engines were fitted with a defeat device, which allowed it to illegally pass American emissions testing for NOx (oxides of nitrogen).

The EPA alleged that the engine’s control software was able to detect an emissions test and enter a “temperature conditioning” mode that limited the output of NOx. When the test is concluded, the engine reverts to operating in its regular configuration, emitting up to nine times the permitted levels of NOx.

Corporate cultural issues being what they are, I think it’s a sure bet that there’ll be more “surprises” like this before all is said and done, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see issues beyond emissions appear as well.

corporate crap, aka a couple of software engineers

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Volkswagen — and their misleading and deceptive behaviour — are all the news at the moment. Diesel engines run in a continuum, with variables like particulates, fuel consumption, power output, and nitrous oxide (NOx) production in play, with a summary that to minimise particulates, fuel consumption, and reasonable power output, the production of nitrous oxides result.

In large diesels, such as those found in trucks, buses, and so on, this is dealt with by injecting a urea solution into the exhaust, where a catalyst neutralises the NOx component of the exhaust. This solution adds weight and complexity, as well as the requirement to “refuel” the urea solution regularly, so it isn’t often found on small diesels.

People though don’t tolerate smoky diesels, particularly in small passenger vehicles. The addition of a diesel particulate filter theoretically addresses some of this, but better to minimise the particulates anyway. The added bonus of minimising particulates is lower fuel consumption, and more usable torque and power. NOx aside, low fuel consumption, low soot, and higher power output is what customers do want.

Which brings the question of how small diesel manufacturers have been passing the extremely strict emissions standards, which care more about NOx than particulates, given that NOx is a main ingredient in photochemical smog. As is now turns out, at least one manufacturer — Volkswagen — has been passing the tests through duplicity: running a “fuel-rich,” probably particulate-heavy, NOx-light engine profile when under test; running a leaner, particulate-light, NOx-heavy engine profile for normal driving.

Give a one-dimensional metric to an engineer, and they’ll find a way to ‘optimise’ that metric. Measure ticket closure rates in a support environment, and tickets will be closed as quickly as possible — probably quicker than would result in happy customers.

However, I don’t for a moment believe that “a couple of software engineers” would have gone to these lengths unbidden; for starters, the test regime for such engine profiles would require significant coordination among many different people within the organisation, all the way up to — at the very least — a program manager. Dyno runs; tests to ensure the software can figure out the difference between a rolling road and a real one; the engine mappings themselves: all of this takes time, effort, expense, and coordination. If it were as simple as “a couple of software engineers,” the development costs associated with new cars wouldn’t be as large as they are in the first place.

Further, why would “a couple of software engineers” be too concerned about passing some environmental tests, unless they had been directed to be concerned about it?

My guess, having seen similar behaviours — even including tossing “a couple of software engineers” under the bus when caught — can be summarised like so:

  1. Diesel engine was developed.
  2. Diesel engine fails internal benchmarks against the relevant environmental standards.
  3. “A couple of software engineers” are tasked with fine-tuning the engine run profile to meet the environmental standards.
  4. Engine now passes benchmarks, but fails to provide the driving performance that would be preferred.
  5. “A couple of software engineers” are now tasked with finding a solution to this problem, with the inference that they still need to be able to pass the environmental standards.

Given this trade-off, the use of two separate engine maps, tuned for each use case — and additional code to determine which one to use — is almost the only logical outcome.

So yes, it probably was “a couple of software engineers” who wrote the code. It almost certainly couldn’t have been done without fairly sophisticated coordination across the whole product team.


Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

With the news that BP is shutting its Brisbane refinery, it’s worth pointing to this article by Neerav Bhatt:

What would happen if the Australian national electricity grid collapsed or a war broke out in the Asia-Pacific, blocking cargo ships carrying liquid fuel from reaching us?

A new NRMA commissioned report about Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security reveals that we face the real risk of not having any domestic oil refineries by 2030, which would leave us wholly dependent on foreign liquid fuel supplies.

This is, as it happens, as good as any reason to look to diversifying our sources of fuel.

the cost of progress

Friday, January 17th, 2014

GDP simply measures a nation’s raw economic activity in terms of production and consumption. It makes no attempt to factor in the depletion of natural resources or the degradation of the environment. It cares not for income inequality and all the ills that come with it. It doesn’t pretend to discriminate between beneficial economic activity (new infrastructure, investment in education, disease prevention, etc) and negative activity (the cost of crime, pollution, etc). And it entirely ignores whole swathes of fruitful activity, such as housework or volunteering in the community.

One sign of how destitute GDP is as a metric of well-being is that it tends to go up after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and remediation spur intense activity that is registered by GDP, while the destruction, lives lost, suffering and disruption to families and communities in the wake of a flood, cyclone or bushfire are ignored.

GDP is not, and was never designed to be, a measure of a nation’s well-being. Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, said in 1934 that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”.


Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

The annual energy potential from solar energy is 23,000 TWy. Energy potential from total recoverable reserves of coal is 900 TWy. For petroleum, it’s 240 TWy; and for natural gas, it’s 215 TWy. Wind energy’s yearly energy potential is 25–70 TWy.

Now all we need is efficient, low-impact energy storage to go with this.


Thursday, January 17th, 2013

By the time I’m a century old, coffee as we know it is expected to be in extremely short supply.

C. arabica is a very fussy plant:

[It] takes about seven years to mature fully, and does best with 1.0–1.5 meters of rain, evenly distributed throughout the year. It is usually cultivated between 1,300 and 1,500 m altitude, but there are plantations as low as sea level and as high as 2,800 m.

The plant can tolerate low temperatures, but not frost, and does best with temperatures around 20°C. Commercial cultivars mostly only grow to about 5 m, and are frequently trimmed as low as 2 m to facilitate harvesting. [It] prefers to be grown in light shade.

Between shifting rainfall patterns and variations in temperature, the regions capable of growing this plant in the industrial quantities required for today’s coffee consumption are limited — noting that coffee sees a lot of trade.


Sunday, January 6th, 2013

There are times—Hurricane Sandy, say—when nature rears up and reminds humankind that it’s the ultimately powerful force on this planet. But most of the rest of the time, we’re very happily dominating the natural world. It’s come to the point where scientists have come up with a name for the time humans have been on the Earth: The Anthropocene, a geological age where people are the dominant factor in shaping the physical space of the planet.

Man features the fantastical journey of humankind as it encounters and then exploits or kills every creature and natural resource on the planet. Watch the Everyman making boots out of snakes to slicing of bears’ heads to clubbing seals until he meets an untimely end. Will we receive the same comeuppance?