26-10-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
A recent tweet from an influential Twitter user could have potentially landed Tesla in hot water after it was discovered that the code inside Tesla vehicles contains the location of various vehicle testing grounds. What exactly happened with the tweet, is this the first time something like this has happened, and how can such practices have serious real-world repercussions?
Tesla Firmware (User Tweets About Tesla Code)
A Twitter user who goes by the name “green” is well known for their insight into Tesla vehicles and the code that they run, but a recent post by the user has noted that Tesla firmware has included the name of car testing grounds in Australia and Asia. At the same time, other testing grounds have also been identified in the firmware including those in Europe, China, and Korea. The Twitter user make a passing suggestion that the use of such code could be to tweak the performance of Tesla vehicles during tests to “better conform” to local laws and regulations.
However, Euro NCAP (an EU-backed organisation that evaluates vehicle safety), has caught wind of this tweet and has now announced that they will be launching an investigation into Tesla vehicles to try and identify if there is any truth in these claims. So far, the investigation has not revealed any evidence of wrongdoing on Tesla’s part but assured that the investigation will be executed to the highest standards in order to preserve the integrity of Euro NCAP safety evaluations.
While Tesla has said very little in this situation, they did respond to questions from Euro NCAP and explicitly stated that their vehicles do not use geofencing at test sites. However, Tesla vehicles do indeed geofence some features for legal reasons with one example being the disabling of FSD in parts of Toronto. Furthermore, Euro NCAP were informed that vehicles also use geolocation to identify what country they are in which is important for recognising road signs. However, Green pointed out that Japan, which has unique markings and signs, is not mentioned in the code.
Tesla Software (How Do Tesla Car Tests Work?)
Whether Tesla has used software to circumvent car safety tests or not is still up for debate, but if true, this would not be the first time engineers have used software to fool tests. By far the most famous example of using software to improve test results came from Volkswagen whose vehicles were programmed to recognise official tests and MOTs. If these testing conditions were detected, the vehicle would electronically change the performance of the engine to lower nitrous emissions and thereby make the vehicle appear to be more environmentally friendly.
However, once on the road, the vehicle would reset the configuration of the engine to improve performance, but at the cost of increased emissions (turns out, over the legal limit). The discovery of the scandal came from three research students involved with engine efficiency and emissions. After hiring three different vehicles, the emissions were quickly discovered, and the findings were eventually reported to authorities.
Why are defeat devices dangerous for society?
As much as we all hate red tape and legislation, there are extremely good reasons why certification, tests, and requirements exist. In the case of the automotive industry, cutting down on emissions isn’t just good for the climate in general, but it is also beneficial to health. It is well understood that emissions from fossil fuels can increase rates of asthma while also worsening respiratory diseases, and as such the reduction of emissions can reduce the number of preventative deaths.
Another common example is EMC compliance whereby electronic devices are not allowed to emit radio signals above a certain threshold (unless they are using a free band, do not cause interference with standardised protocols, or have a license). While these tests are hard to pass and can cost an engineering department a large sum of money, by ensuring that a product passes these EMC requirements, interference between electronic devices is significantly reduced. Imagine a world where all smartphones in a 20-meter radius fail because some poorly designed product being used by an individual creates large amounts of interference; it would be almost impossible to create reliable networks and infrastructure.
Overall, engineers who use cheat devices are not clever, brilliant, or unique, but instead are idiots that are incapable of designing a product to high standards. Worse, the use of cheat devices is one of the worse kinds of lying, especially if that cheat device is designed to improve safety ratings because there will be customs who purchased that product under the promise of having a safe device.