• Newsletter Issue #827

    October 5th, 2015

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    When someone signs up for the Apple Developer Program, which is now $99 per year for all of its platforms, they agree to a pretty normal set of non-disclosure agreements. Short of the legal mumbo jumbo, it basically means that members can discuss the stuff that’s already been made public by Apple, but nothing else. This is particularly true for problems developers may have encountered during the beta process.

    A similar sort of restrictions are in effect for the public betas, but enforcement is apt to be less severe, except for people who actually post the files.

    With that in mind, you have to wonder why a developer would not just violate that agreement, but do so in a very public way. Now I’m a fan of iFixit. I’ve had them on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, and I enjoyed each and every interview. It is really useful to know what makes up a tech product, and how difficult it might be to repair if the need arises. It doesn’t mean I’m about to repair my iPhone, or my iMac, although I might tear apart that old 17-inch MacBook Pro to replace the battery when the need arises. I’ve already replaced the hard drive with an SSD, and installed 8GB of OWC RAM. None of it was terribly difficult, except for the need to be careful about where you put the tiny screws, because they are easy to lose.

    Well, it seems that iFixit got lucky when they signed up for tvOS. They were awarded the right to buy a preproduction Apple TV because they were selected in Apple’s lottery. All well and good, assuming they had any intention of actually building an app for the new set-top box. Instead, they tore the unit down and published the story, complete with detailed photos.

    The propriety of doing so was questionable. Even if iFixit wanted to do that for their own edification, to be prepared when the shipping product was released, they clearly violated Apple’s terms. So Apple was within its rights to say “you’re fired,” and terminate their developer membership. At the end of the day, the information may be useful from an academic point of view. But it’s not that most people would want to fix one unless it was out of warranty, and, besides, it’s always possible shipping units may be somewhat different, thus rendering at least part of that teardown irrelevant.

    But really? How could they possibly do such a foolish thing in the first place? And their response? “Live and learn” was clearly tone deaf. Come on guys, you can do better. Or maybe a telltale phrase from the late comedian Joan Rivers is appropriate: “Grow up!”

    Now on this week’s episode, we presented Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. His bill of fare included the iFixit dustup. He also talked about Amazon’s decision to stop carrying the Apple TV and Google Chromecast after releasing a new Fire TV set-top box. Other topics included the iPad Pro and Apple Music, where Gene explained why he has decided not to continue his membership.

    You also heard from Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who also discussed iFixit’s controversial move with their Apple TV. Gene expanded on his Apple Music decision, and Kirk explained why, after suggesting he’d rather stick with an iPhone 5s, he decided to buy an iPhone 6s despite the uncomfortably larger size. Kirk and Gene talked about the emissions problems that impact many Volkswagen’s equipped with diesel engines, and whether Kirk’s Seat Ibiza, a VW-built car, may be impacted.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Longtime Pennsylvania field investigator/author Stan Gordon returns to The Paracast. Stan is a low-key, unassuming guy who has been in the trenches for well over 50 years and is one of this country’s most experienced paranormal/UFO/crypto investigators. He has been researching UFO sightings, Bigfoot encounters, and other mysterious events in Pennsylvania since 1959, and since then, he has been involved with the investigation of thousands of unusual incidents. He’ll talk about his newest book, “Astonishing Encounters: Pennsylvania’s Unknown Creatures (Case-book 3),” which is filled with many inexplicable reports — some literally beyond belief.

    THE AUTO INDUSTRY AND TRUST

    I was surprised to learn that most auto makers use their own facilities, or hired hands, to test for emissions and fuel economy. So it’s not that America’s EPA will necessarily come on over to a factory, test equipment in hand, to perform a direct inspection unless there was the need to do so. It’s not the same as a restaurant being visited by the health department to make sure the facilities are clean and there are no creepy crawly things running loose.

    So this was a disaster waiting to happen, and when Volkswagen apparently tried to make excuses when confronted with evidence that many recent vehicles with diesel engines emitted too much of the foul stuff, they were forced to come clean. So hundreds of thousands of cars sold between 2009 and 2015 in the U.S. are subject to recalls to install a fix. VW admits that over 11 million vehicles around the world suffer from the same problem.

    The source? Well, evidently VW installed software on these vehicles that disabled certain emission controls under normal use, but when they were being checked for emissions, the controls were switched on. The mind boggles over excuses from departing corporate executives that they didn’t know that millions of their vehicles were being hacked in this way to pass air pollution regulations around the world.

    In the U.S. VW will stop advertising diesel cars, and will not sell the 2016 models until the problems are fixed. All well and good, but what about the people who are already driving the affected vehicles? Should they keep them in a garage or a parking stall until the recall is over?

    I suspect most people aren’t paying attention, and if they do, they will not stop driving. But when the time comes to buy a new or used car, the VW brand, or one of its subsidiaries, such as Audi, may not be among those considered.

    What makes it worse is that VW repeatedly boasted over having the cleanest diesels in the industry, and I suppose if all you did was measure the stuff coming out of the tailpipe under test mode, that was true. Published reports indicate that the pollutants under normal use may increase by up to 40 times, which is frightening and utterly offensive.

    The fix?

    It is not certain whether the fix merely involves keeping emission controls fully active, at the expense of performance and fuel economy, or making additional hardware and software changes. Obviously a software update will be simple to administer, and maybe that’s what will happen if the changes aren’t serious. If it’s just about slightly slower acceleration, which may not be noticed, or a mile or two lower fuel economy, which isn’t a big deal either, maybe there won’t be a lot of pain associated with these repairs.

    I suspect it may not be so easy, for otherwise VW would not have pulled this egregious stunt in the first place.

    Or maybe it’s a matter adding up the cost to build a vehicle, and even allowing a small amount to influence a wrongheaded design decision. I remember one tragic episode back in the 1970s, when Ford opted not to enhance the fuel tanks of the infamous Pinto compacts to protect the car from catching fire in the event of a crash. The cost of that change was minimal, and may have been no more than a few dollars per vehicle. But the company measured that against the cost of paying out settlements for people who might be injured in a fire, and the bean counters decided to take the cheap way out regardless of the potential harm.

    So maybe there is a cheap solution and VW didn’t employ it to reduce production costs. Corporations are known to take such steps in the interests of greed, the public be damned. Or perhaps VW’s engineers found it too difficult to achieve management’s design goals and thus took the easy way out. More will be known once the fix is in, and I expect it will be expedited. Indeed, it may be possible they already knew what to do, and were hoping not to have to do it.

    Forgetting about the costs of recalling and refitting millions of vehicles, imagine the costs of class action suits. Consider legal filings from people who might assert physical harm because of the higher-than-promised emission levels. Some wonder whether VW, which just recently became the number one auto manufacturer in the world, can ever recover its luster.

    But it’s not the first time scandal has impacted an auto maker. Moving past the Ford Pinto tragedy, here are a few: In the 1980s, there were those claims of unintended acceleration involving Audi luxury cars. Supposedly most of these problems were ultimately attributed to driver error, but it took years for Audi to recover.

    In recent years, Toyota was stung by similar allegations, and there were some design changes to reduce the possibility of such a thing happening, at least when drivers weren’t blamed for accidentally pushing the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. GM is still dealing with the aftereffects of paying damages to the families of people who died as the result of crashes caused by installing faulty ignition switches on millions of vehicles.

    When you look at current sales figures, Ford, Toyota and GM are reporting record sales growth. VW’s sales grew slightly in September, at least before the news broke. I suspect if you want to get a new or used car real cheap, and don’t mind the potentially diminished resale value, a VW might be just the ticket. Indeed, they might even be offering amazing incentives for purchases, particularly on credit, but does a company who pulls a stunt like that deserve your business?

    All this shall pass. Assuming there’s little or no evidence that anyone was hurt, or killed, because of higher emissions from VW diesels, there will be fallout for maybe a few years, and it will all be forgotten. Well, except for those who had to bring their vehicles to dealers to have the fixes applied. And if VW makes the process relatively brief and painless — depending on what sort of fixes are required — perhaps customers will appreciate a friendly customer service experience. They will have to be on their best behavior, and maybe a fat discount coupon on a new vehicle purchase will help.

    But is VW alone in using such blatant trickery to pass more stringent emissions tests? One report I read suggests BMW may also have a similar problem on its hands, but that has yet to be confirmed. I also expect that all car makers will be subject to more stringent scrutiny just to see if this is a one-off problem, due to VW’s insular corporate culture, or whether it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s clear to me that auto makers will do whatever they can to skirt around government regulations. If there’s a cheap way to get vehicles certified, they will do it. If sending along questionable results from questionable tests results in better fuel economy ratings, they’ll do it. Ask anyone who drive a vehicle from Hyundai and its subsidiary, Kia. In recent years, they had to reduce mileage ratings because of faulty testing, but at least they paid out damages to customers to compensate for the increased costs of fueling their vehicles.

    A similar problem has happened to Ford.

    I’m starting to think a bicycle may indeed be the more efficient mode of transportation — well at least until you actually have to bring a few bags of groceries home.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #827”

    1. DaveD says:

      I think that VW should be mandated to buyback all 11 million of the suspected vehicles or award the buyer at least half of the purchased price. The idea of making a misleading product to sell to a trusting consumer be cost prohibited when forced to take it back. However, there is a line of distinction drawn when death or injury is a result of a known flawed product. Not only should the product be recalled there should be jail time for those who perpetrated the coverup. If a peanut company executive can be put in jail, so should an auto executive.

      • @DaveD, Should and will are very different. I don’t expect to see anything of that sort happen, but I would expect careful scrutiny by different governments of any fix they propose. And make them pay lots and lots of fines.

        At the end of the day, there are many cases where corporate executives should be subject to criminal punishment. It rarely happens.

        Peace,
        Gene

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