Photo: Nick Ut/AP

A Volvo executive recently admitted that Volkswagen’s “defeat device” cheat for its diesel cars was an “open secret” in the auto industry for years before the scandal broke last September. So given how intensely automakers test their competitors’ cars, why didn’t anyone call bullshit on VW sooner?

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Australia’s News.com reports that Kent Falck, who worked on future vehicle development at Volvo and spent a total of 29 years at the company, told reporters in that country that “diesel experts at rival car brands were suspicious about how Volkswagen could meet strict U.S. emissions standards, but they themselves could not.”

He went on saying Volvo had been struggling to determine what VW was doing to meet U.S. emissions requirements:

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We sat in a room and reviewed all the facts, figures, whatever we have, with the specialists...[But] we can’t manage it, how are the others doing it? We don’t know.

In the end Volvo, like many others, simply couldn’t release diesel vehicles that met their performance targets, leaving VW largely unrivaled in the U.S. marketplace. Falck said:

From our perspective with our knowledge, with our experience, we can just take care of ourselves, I said [to senior Volvo management] “we can’t do it, we can’t introduce the car.”

Similar confusion may have happened at Mazda, a company that has been promising a diesel Mazda 6 for years.

Mazda’s 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder engine, which is sold in other markets, was slated in 2012 to come to the U.S. Then in September 2013, we learned Mazda was having trouble in the “final parts of the emissions and certification process.”

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And then Mazda delayed their oil-burning 6 again. Why? Here’s a quote from our January 2014 article:

Mazda says it’s delaying the diesel’s launch further because it wants to meet emissions requirements without using a urea injection system and without overly sacrificing performance and economy.

And that’s the rub. Mazda’s been delaying the 2.2-liter diesel in America for over two years, all because it’s been struggling to do what Volkswagen had been doing forever. Today, there’s still no diesel Mazda in the U.S., and despite the company’s claims, there probably won’t be one given all that’s happened with Dieselgate.

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So why didn’t Volvo or Mazda or anyone else call BS? Well, Falck said nobody notified authorities because experts couldn’t prove that VW was actually using a software cheat to change the emissions strategy when the vehicle detected it was on the EPA emission rolls.

Plus, Falck said people in the industry assumed VW was using some sort of proprietary technology to get their diesels to perform so well, saying;

There is always intellectual properties in the world ... there might be something out there in the technology ... that we are not allowed to buy because it’s owned by a supplier. We were wondering how [VW met strict US emissions targets] that’s for sure.

Munro is a major player in the automotive benchmarking field.

It’s hard to believe that not a single engineer could figure out that VW wasn’t playing by the rules. I could see how some might have assumed there was some proprietary tech at play, but you’d think those nerds in the dyno cells would figure out exactly what that tech was. And yes, sometimes it’s not easy to break into competitors’ ECUs to take data on certain engine and emissions parameters, but engineers can usually find a way.

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Automotive engineers do tons of what’s called “competitive benchmarking,” which is basically a fancy term for studying other companies’ cars and, in many cases, “reverse engineering” them.

If Company B is doing something that Company A doesn’t understand, Company A will go out and buy or borrow the car, test it, take it apart, and do whatever it takes to figure out what the kids down the street are doing. Companies have entire labs devoted to the practice. Heck, there are entire companies that exist to tear down cars so engineers can get a closer look.

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I did a lot of benchmarking during my time as a powertrain cooling engineer. I can tell you this: if we were struggling to develop a cooling system and saw that someone else had a successful, clean design, we’d go out and get that car and study it. We’d test it until we had the data we needed to understand the engineering behind their design. It drove me mad if I couldn’t understand how a competitor’s cooling system worked. It was the sort of thing I studied relentlessly.

Now imagine you’re Mazda, GM or Volvo, and you’ve been struggling for years to design a system like Volkswagen’s that meets emissions standards without using urea and supposedly “without sacrificing performance or economy.” You’d have your engineers camping in dyno cells running tests on VWs day in and day out.

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In my mind, someone somewhere surely must have been losing their cool thinking about how the Jetta TDI manages to meet emissions requirements, still produce plenty of power, meet durability targets, and get good fuel economy. Surely that same person must have tested this thing and figured out Volkswagen’s secret. At some point they almost would have been looking for a cheat.

Engineers are the best technical crime solvers in the world, so I just find it hard to believe that not a single one could figure this cheat out.

But maybe Falck is right, and engineers just couldn’t prove that VW was using a software cheat. We may never know.