Big data uncovers hidden truths about ‘dieselgate’

Lux Research, an independent research and advisory firm based in Boston, published a blog post recently about the fallout from Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating. “The common narrative is that this was a surprising, unforeseen event, and in many ways, it was,” writes the company. “However, newly developed, specialized, big data analysis allows us to investigate diesel innovation—and uncover some interesting trends. By applying our Lux Tech Signal software tool to the topic of diesel engines, we see a suspicious decline in diesel innovation.” (See figure 1.)

Lux Research figure 1
Figure 1.

Lux explains that its Tech Signal works by algorithmically doing high-throughput parallel analysis of various early-stage datasets about innovation, resulting in a revealing picture about any technology’s progress—in this case, the lack thereof, said Lux. “Intriguingly, this decline in diesel engine innovation interest matches up very well with the timing of when diesel-powered cars incorporating the cheating software hit the market. Our analysis shows the decline happening from 2010 to 2014; meanwhile, the cheating vehicles hit the market around the same timeframe.” (See figure 2.)

Lux Research figure 2
Figure 2.

That presents an “interesting contrast,” Lux noted. “During a time of ever-tightening emissions regulations, and of more and more automakers rolling out supposedly advanced diesel engines, developers appeared to have been pulling back on their interests in further innovation,” said Lux. “While it would be over-reaching to state that this is a causal and direct relationship, it does hint at the importance of tracking whether innovation is or is not proceeding apace.”

To determine whether this trend might simply be caused by slowing innovation in conventional engines en masse , Lux looked at whether innovation within the internal combustion engine (ICE) as a whole is fading. It is not, Lux concluded. Combustion engines, in general, continue to receive steady interest in innovation, while diesel engines do not. (See figure 3.) Since diesel engines are also ICEs, the disparity between the two curves would be even higher if we were to segment out non-diesel ICEs versus diesel ICEs.)

Lux Research figure 3
Figure 3.

Lux Tech Signal was also used to look at how other areas of automotive drivetrain innovation performed, and found that while diesel engines’ innovation interest was spiraling downward, electric vehicles were seeing a genuine uptick. “Ironically,” noted Lux, “in its post-dieselgate scramble to pivot, VW has jumped between the two curves, shifting priorities from diesel engines to a mad dash to catch up in electric vehicles, instead." (See figure 4.) Fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, performed very poorly in the data-driven analysis, foreshadowing their abysmally low sales on the market today.

Lux Research figure 4
Figure 4.

Digging even deeper, Lux compared and contrasted different corporations’ innovation activity within diesel, looking at the key parties implicated in the dieselgate scandal—Volkswagen and Bosch. When Lux analyzed the innovation activity of these companies within diesel, it saw a telling trend: “Diesel innovation activity at VW and Bosch appears to have declined by more than 50% between 2001 and 2015 (specifically, their averaged diesel innovation fell from 2.0% to 0.8%, as a percent of worldwide diesel innovation).” 

Meanwhile, said Lux, “VW’s mainstream global

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