Dr.Arvind Thiruvengadam loves going for long rides, and it is often a part of his job. But when this assistant professor at the West Virginia Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE), went for a long 2,400 mile round trip between Los Angeles and Seattle in first week of March in 2013, to test a rented Volkswagen Passat, he didn’t know that the journey would be a landmark in the history of automotive Industry.
Thirty-two-year-old Thiruvengadam, who hails from Chennai, and his colleague Marc Besch, were surprised that during the journey, the NOx (mono nitrogen oxide) emission level of the Passat – the test vehicle that came to them accidentally in response to their newspaper advertisement requesting for a European make diesel car test vehicle – was five to 20 times higher than the European standards.
The researchers, who were emission testing three European make vehicles in real-world driving conditions, found the same with the other Volkswagen model, Jetta, too. It showed 15 to 35 times higher emissions than EPA standards, while the third vehicle, a BMW X5, did fine.
This was contrary to the perfect, and within EPA standard, emission levels that the Volkswagen cars showed during labs test. They double-and-triple checked their work. But the result was same.
Volkswagen was cheating as further investigations found.
The fallouts -- CEO of the much trusted automaker resigned;, it had to recall millions of cars from various parts of the world and face potential bans of its diesel models; it may have to pay an $18 billion fine; its investors saw more than 25 billion euros wiped off the value of the VW stock in just 5 days, and a whole rethinking is happening about the emission regulation of vehicles all over the world.
“Marc and I have done many real-world driving studies, [and those are] always exciting, because we get to visit a lot of places… [But] we least expected that the results would lead to events that we are reading about in the newspaper today,” says Thiruvengadam in an email interview with HT.
Thiruvengadam did his engineering in 2004 from Madras university, in Chennai – where his parents still live -- and went to the US to study at West Virginia university. He did his masters and PhD there and later on became a research assistant professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the university and a part of the core group of the CAFEE.
When the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) issued a public request for proposal (RFP) in December 2012, to test three European passenger diesel cars in the US, the CAFEE offered a test plan. It was accepted in January 2013.
“The request did not mention Volkswagen vehicles specifically and it was simply studying the emissions performance of passenger diesel cars equipped with a Lean NOx trap and Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), in unique driving conditions such as experienced in California,” he says.
Apart from him and Besch, the five member team worked on the tests included Dr. Gregory Thompson, Daniel Carder, and Hemanth Kappanna.
“Marc and I were project leads and executed the project in California. It involved city driving, hill climb, inter-city driving and freeway driving,” he says.
They, as usual, drove the vehicles, enjoying the long rides, in the three models that they rented.
“Jetta was the only model to operate with a lean NOx trap. The choice of VW Passat was by accident, as a gentleman responded to our advertisement in a newspaper requesting for a test vehicle that was European make diesel car,” he says.
Till then they had emission tested only heavy trucks and “this was the first time diesel passenger cars were being extensively emissions tested in real-world driving conditions. We were excited to be leading the work,” Thiruvegadam says.
The tests showed something unexpected -- large differences between the emissions during their driving tests and that during in-house tests at California Air Resources Board. They could not explain it.
“We conducted the study out of pure academic interest and not to implicate any manufacturer. The results of the study simply provided an indicator to a possible problem,” he says.
Thiruvengadam says the credits for the fallout of the tests should go to the regulators, who pursued the indicators the study offered.
“The actual investigation of the issue and the subsequent admittance from VW was a result of regulatory pressure”
Subsequent investigations found that the cars have a defeat device -- a program in the engine control unit computer that recognizes that the vehicle is being emissions tested.
The device could detect if the engines were working and the steering wheel was not moving -- that happens only during lab tests. It would then turn on the catalytic scrubber up to full power, that would minimise the emissions, allowing the car to pass the tests.
What unfolded was one of the biggest frauds in the history of automobiles.
So what are the implications for India, if any? Thiruvengadam feels there is a lot for the Indian regulators to take away from this event as India has significantly greater number of diesel passenger cars than in the US.
“The episode should give an insight into how emissions regulation should be framed for the near future,” he says.