Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker and manufacturer of some of the finest cars ever made, will not forget 2015. It lost a CEO (Martin Winterkorn), is facing billions in fines and as of September last year, will have to rejig close to 11 million vehicles, worldwide. And all that because two engine and fuel experts — Dr Arvind Thiruvengadam and colleague Marc Besch — decided to go on a long drive only to come back, frowning. Something was not right with the test VW.
Months of investigation later, Dr Thiruvengadam, Besch and their team at the West Virginia Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE), released stunning research which later snowballed into what can only be described as the automotive equivalent of Watergate. It was a genius trick though. VW is believed to have placed “defeat devices” in their diesel cars — with the sole purpose of fooling emissions testing.
The devices — a programme placed with the engine control unit — would detect the moment the car was undergoing testing and would prompt the ECU to force cut emissions, allowing the car to pass the tests. “It was strange. Marc and I were travelling on the freeway in Los Angeles and the engine on the test vehicle was running on the perfect band... cruising. This is what we call the sweet spot, when the engine’s supposed to be releasing the least amount of emissions. But we noticed the emissions were at least 20 times higher,” says Dr Thiruvengadam.
And their test was not even aimed to detect a problem. “Our intention was to test diesel engines in real world conditions. We didn’t have a plan to bring down a particular manufacturer either. Our analysis was picked up by regulators (such as America’s Environmental Protection Agency) and that’s when the action started.” But despite the current worldwide witch-hunt against diesel, Dr Thiruvengadam insists this fuel is still full of hope.
“Diesel technology has improved significantly. These engines are no longer smoky, dirty or rattly. But you need to spend a lot of money to make them efficient — unlike petrol units. So, it’s not cheap to make a clean diesel engine.” Dr Thiruvengadam adds there has been no backlash from manufacturers, including VW, following the revelations. “On the contrary, carmakers have been very co-operative and receptive... they want to clamp down on such practices and work with us to make engines efficient.”
Thirty-two-year-old Thiruvengadam hails from Chennai and following an engineering degree in 2004 from Madras University, he went to the US to study. A Master’s degree and a PhD later, he became a research assistant professor at the West Virginia University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Department — and part of the CAFEE.
But Dr Thiruvengadam and his colleagues are also on the path to some fantastic solutions. “We’re trying to pollution-map cities (including ones in India), to determine hotspots and to help authorities focus on these locations. And then we’re trying to construct technologies that’ll make cars more environmentally aware. For example, these ‘geo-response units’ in engines will tell cars to slow down and decrease emissions further if they sense they’re entering a highly polluted area. We really hope such ideas will limit mankind’s impact on the Planet.
“Because the most important thing we need to understand about the atmosphere is the fact that it will take years to bring about changes in critical parametres. About the ongoing odd-even experiment in New Delhi, those are tiny steps. Environmental changes take years and we need to plan for the decades ahead. The countries in the West have clear roadmaps set at least twenty years into the future. It’s high time India implemented such forward-thinking measures. It’s a fragile system up there... which we absolutely need to preserve.”