A Tamil origin scientist and his American colleague were the first to expose Volkswagen’s emissions scandal!

Seldom did Dr.Arvind Thiruvengadam, assistant professor at the West Virginia Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions, know that a test drive in Volkswagen Passat would be a landmark in the history of automotive industry.

Dr. Arvind, 32, originating from Chennai, went for long 3,840 km round trip between Los Angeles and Seattle with his colleague Marc Besch and were surprised to note that during the journey in the first week of March in 2013, 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.

According to a report, the researchers, were testing three European make vehicles in real-world driving conditions. To their shock, they found the same level of emission from other Volkswagen model, Jetta too. It showed 15-35 times higher emissions than EPA standards. However, the third vehicle a BMW X5 performed fine.

The emissions from Volkswagen was much in contrary to the perfect emission levels portrayed during lab tests. The researchers checked their work twice and even thrice. The result was the same. It was only on further investigations they realised that Volkswagen was cheating and playing a double game.

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.

Dr. Arvind Thiruvengadam

Dr. Arvind Thiruvengadam

“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.

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.

“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.

What unfolded was one of the biggest frauds in the history of automobiles.

Thiruvengadam says the credits for the fallout of the tests should go to the regulators, who pursued the indicators the study offered.

– Spadman