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VW engineer sent to the clink for three years for emissions-busting code

James Liang gets 40 months on the cooler and $200,000 fine

By Kieren McCarthy, 25 Aug 2017

The engineer responsible for designing the software that enabled Volkswagen diesel cars to cheat on US emissions tests has been sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined $200,000.

James Liang pled guilty last year to defrauding the federal government and violating the Clean Air Act, in a plea deal with the US government in which he promised to provide details in return for a reduced sentence.

Despite federal prosecutors only asking for a $20,000 fine, Michigan district court Judge Sean Cox decided to make an example of the techie and ordered he pay 10 times that as a deterrent to other auto engineers and executives.

The 40-month jail sentence was also at the high end of the maximum allowable five-year term for his crimes. Liang's lawyer had argued that instead of jail time, he could be sentenced to a period of house arrest, arguing that he was only following orders out of "misguided loyalty to his employer."

Liang can appeal the sentence but has yet to say if he will.

Judge Cox called the 10-year deception by VW "a stunning fraud on the American consumer," and a "very serious and troubling crime against our economic system."

As head of the VW's Diesel Competence unit in the US, Liang oversaw the software function that enabled the cars to cheat the emissions tests. He is also the most junior of the eight current and former VW executives that have been charged so far.

The "defeat device" was designed to recognize when the car was being tested (effectively noting that the wheels were turning but the car wasn't moving) and switch to a lower emissions setting.

When the car was running normally, that setting was removed and emissions were measured at up to 40 times higher than the permitted levels. The device was fitted on 11 million cars.

How are the acoustics in jail?

The engineers knew full well what they were doing and attempted to hide their tracks, even calling the device a variety of pseudonyms including "acoustic function," "cycle beating software" and "emissions-tight mode."

Federal prosecutor Mark Chutkow said Liang's prison sentence would send "a powerful deterrent message to the rest of the industry."

It's not just the auto industry that will hear the message. Software engineers across the country will have to reflect on the fact that they may be held personally responsible for creating something that knowingly breaks the law (cough, cough, Uber).

Another VW executive, general manager of its engineering and environmental office Oliver Schmidt, has also pleaded guilty of conspiring to mislead regulators and violating clean air laws. He signed a plea deal that will see him face up to seven years in prison and a fine of between $40,000 and $400,000. He is due to be sentenced in December.

In March, VW pled guilty in a Michigan court to three criminal counts of breaking environment protection laws, misleading investigators, and swindling citizens as part of its $4.3bn settlement with the US government. ®

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