Why Dieselgate Was Really An IT Problem

If cars are supercomputers, why are we not programming them for fewer emissions and speed?

In Cologne on Nov. 22
In Cologne on Nov. 22
Adrian Lobe

MUNICH — Three years after the Dieselgate scandal erupted, the conversation about banning diesel cars drags on. It all started with an illegal emissions-defeat device that Volkswagen and other car manufacturers installed "as standard" in diesel vehicles, and whose software manipulated exhaust gas values. When politicians today discuss "hardware retrofits' and "software updates," it indicates that they consider vehicles as a functional equivalent to computers. Yet, they don't take that computerization of society to its logical conclusion.

Smartphones, door systems, refrigerators, and cars — all are computers. A modern vehicle contains an average of 100 million lines of code. By way of comparison, the Hubble space telescope functions with just about 50,000 lines of code. A car is a super-computer with wheels, on which the driving application, among others, is pre-installed. Politicians must, therefore, understand the diesel emissions scandal as what it is first and foremost: an IT problem in which the code plays a key active role.

We could discuss at length whether vehicles should also be subjected to a sort of technical inspection where not only the hardware but also the software, the algorithm, are put to the test. But by adopting the industry's rhetoric about "hardware retrofits' and "software updates' without reflecting about what it actually means, the government is suggesting to voters and customers that the problem with the manipulated devices is that they're no longer up to date — and is thus trivializing fraud. Fraud, in this case, becomes just a bug, a program error that can be covered up and corrected with the right piece of software. The code of the rule of law (right/wrong) is overarched by the binary power code.

Philosophically as well as informatically, this is a matter of ontology: the car is still imagined as a second living room, as a design object with a dignified interior, comfortable seats, and a feel of nobility. In short: as real estate. When you customize a new car, it's like looking for furniture for a new apartment. In those vehicles that are stuffed with technology, you have the feeling of sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. You don't see the CPU, the lazy code, the data tracks generated by the machinery through various control units, the emissions that — hopefully — are chased out of the exhaust pipe in accordance with the law as a result of thousands of computational operations. You can't just open the hood and look into the engine room. Modern vehicles are a black box.

Cars are death machines.

Perhaps it's because of the Germans' libidinal connection to their cars, of the myth that a car means freedom, that it's still romantically transfigured. But all things considered, cars are death machines. Every year 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents, according to the World Health Organization. Another study revealed that almost 780,000 people have died on German roads in traffic accidents since 1950 — roughly the equivalent of a big city like Frankfurt.

The recently deceased French philosopher Paul Virilio, who became famous with his theoretical figure of the "polar inertia", gave the French publication Magazine Littéraire a remarkable interview in 1995 in which he interpreted the car accident as a sign of civil war. When you see SUVs race over the asphalt like armored vehicles and how their drivers believe in survival of the fittest, you could actually think of civil war scenes, where the origin lies not only in acceleration but in a general militarization of cities. According to the General German Automobile Club (ADAC), German motorists were stuck in traffic jams for 457,000 hours in 2017 — the equivalent of 52 years.Time flies, but inertia prevails in traffic jams.

Exhaust gases too are the result of an acceleration, this time of bytes and atoms. They have a lethal effect because they are toxic. According to a study by the US-based consulting firm Environmental Health Analytics, 107,000 people worldwide die every year because of nitrogen oxides from the exhaust gases of diesel vehicles. The researchers say that if manufacturers complied with the current regulations, there would be 38,000 fewer deaths every year. There's an old saying in Germany according to which "the air of the city makes you free" ("Stadtluft macht frei"), but now we have to state that it makes people ill, not free. In some cities in India, life expectancy has been reduced by several years due to emissions.

Time to slow down — Photo: chuttersnap

One can assume that this knowledge has reached the offices of the environmental authorities. A rational policy would, therefore, have to provide cars with warnings similar to those found on cigarette packets: "Driving is harmful to your health." There are certainly other sources of emissions than cars, such as industrial plants. But it would be an educational imperative to name such causal relationships. It seems as if the car lobby is more successful than the tobacco lobby in sowing doubt and obfuscating the minds of the public. The car industry is even more audacious when it advertises "environmental premiums," for example, which suggests that driving a car can protect the environment. It's like a tobacco company advertising cigarettes as "healthy."

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has recently presented a courageous book entitled Breathe (Respirer) in which she pleads for the right to clean air. "People don't die tomorrow from air pollution. People die today," she writes laconically. Emissions are the third-most frequent cause of death after alcohol and tobacco in France. Hidalgo mentions a lung specialist who, before a parliamentary commission, tried to persuade MPs that diesel was not dangerous and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment on probation and a fine of 50,000 euros for false testimony.

Where everything is in motion, nothing moves.

Still, we must stop considering the diesel debate solely from an environmental viewpoint and start seeing the issue at a technological level. What is the benefit of a technology that makes mobility possible but claims the lives of thousands of people? If we accept the computer reality of cars, shouldn't we deconstruct every vehicle by standard reverse-engineering and make the software open source, since the externalities affect everybody? In the spirit of the Degrowth movement, shouldn't we ask ourselves whether less growth and speed would be a more desirable outcome for a sustainable community?

Virilio wrote in his work Speed and Politics: "The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine." Setting the masses in motion is the central power technique of the dromocracy, the rule of speed. "The more masses on the road, the less need for repression: to empty the streets, it's enough to promise everyone the highway."

In this sense, the German federal government is also acting dromocratically if it wants to prevent driving bans at all costs. As long as the rivers of cars keep on flowing, everything remains in motion. The commuter still gets angry when he's in a traffic jam, but he's not deprived of his right to free travel and doesn't demonstrate. Those who drive a car don't take to the streets. And where everything is in motion, nothing moves. Mobilization becomes a form of political immobilization.

Everyone adapts to changing environmental conditions. But anyone who thinks about the computerization of society, and takes it to its logical end, must know the following rule: it's not the models that determine the reality. It's the reality that determines the model.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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