Out of Nowhere The Three Students Who Uncovered 'Dieselgate'

Andrew Spear/ DER SPIEGEL

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Part 2: Taken for a Ride


When they went to pick up the Passat from its private owner, Marc Besch asked him what he thought of the urea tank - how often he had to refill it and if was an annoyance. The owner didn't know what he was talking about. Refilling a urea tank? Never heard of it.

"That could have made us suspicious even before the testing started," says Marc.

"But it didn't," says Hemanth.

They took the cars to El Monte near Los Angeles, where CARB has a test laboratory that's surrounded by barbed wire. All three cars passed the emissions tests easily, with NOx emissions levels low enough to comply with the strict Californian standards. Such were the results under laboratory conditions: nothing out of the ordinary.

The road tests, which proved so momentous, were more complicated. The problems began with the power supply. The emissions-measuring device consumed a lot of electricity, but connecting them to the car's own power supply would have interfered with the readings. There were battery-powered devices, but they tended to run out of juice after just an hour.

The students went to a hardware store and bought gasoline generators, which they screwed onto particle board panels in the backs of the cars. They channeled the generator exhaust through a tube out of the car window. It was now impossible to hold a conversation inside the car, because it was too loud, and the generators had to be refilled constantly. With the backseat of the car stuffed with measuring devices, one of the students sat in the passenger seat with a laptop and another drove.

To begin with, they went on a trip in and around Los Angeles lasting several hours: in heavy LA traffic, along highways and up Mount San Antonio. The nitrogen oxide output of the VW Jetta was up to 35-times higher than permitted levels. The Passat, which had the SCR system, fared a little better, but its NOx emissions were still 20-times higher than they should have been. Only the BMW's emission levels showed no discrepancy.

Arvind, Hemanth and Marc initially viewed the aberrations as an interesting technical problem.

They started by dismantling their own equipment on the search for the problem. They then turned their attentions to the engines. After all, the excessive emissions levels weren't the only curiosity in the results - the overall behavior of the two VWs was strange. Usually, harmful emissions drop as soon as the engine has warmed up. Not so with the VWs.

The students embarked on longer trips, to San Diego and San Francisco. Arvind and Marc even drove the Passat up the coast to Seattle and back, covering some 6,000 kilometers. With tubes attached to the exhaust pipe and the roar of the generator in the trunk, they were quite a sight motoring along I-5, the interstate between San Diego and Seattle. Outside San Francisco, Marc and Arvind were questioned by puzzled police officers about the tubes connected to the exhaust pipe after they had stopped at an exit to recalibrate their equipment. They spent the first of the road trip in the parking lot of a hardware store in Oregon desperately trying to get the generator running again. They stopped off at the Boeing museum south of Seattle and bought accessories from the souvenir store. In the evenings in the hotel room, Arvind often cooked dinner for the others.

Hemanth, the oldest of the three, would sometimes laugh at the others' enthusiasm. Marc never wanted to stop working; Hemanth had never met anyone with a work ethic like his. Hemanth himself was convinced that the work would still be there the next day if they decided to knock off for the evening. Meanwhile, Arvind was a go-getter, always managing to do whatever he set out to do - he was the one who got hold of the three test cars, for example.

Yet at this point, their suspicions still hadn't been aroused.

Mechanical Engineers, Not Detectives

They knew of the existence of defeat devices - hidden software that can detect testing conditions. In a lab test, the wheels will turn but the steering wheel doesn't move. Speed picks up at regular intervals and a test usually only lasts 20 minutes. For this period of time, the software activates the emissions-reduction equipment before then turning it off again once the test is over.

A few years earlier, a number of major truck manufacturers had used defeat devices and been caught. The students, who had performed numerous tests on trucks, were well aware of this. Still, it didn't occur to them that defeat devices might be behind the measurements they were getting. They were mechanical engineers, not detectives.

So they continued to look for answers elsewhere. The most probable explanation, in their view, was an unrecognized flaw in the exhaust system. Dan Carder, their supervisor, says: "To me, that seemed like the most probable cause. I thought Volkswagen might have to conduct a recall and it's going to cost them some money."

After a few weeks, they'd run out of things to test. They kept getting the same results. Hemanth, Arvind and Marc went home.

Their next task was to analyze the results and write them up. None of them felt like it. They hadn't come up with an explanation and they had all moved on to other projects that seemed more interesting. They did nothing at all with the results for the time being.

Six months later, Marc finally sat down to write up the research. He came up with a 117-page report with the title "In-Use Emissions Testing of Light-Duty Diesel Vehicles in the United States."

In March 2014 he presented it at a conference in San Diego. It was held at the Hyatt Regency and 200 people attended - executives from the oil industry and representatives from automobile manufacturers but also agents from regulatory bodies. Delegates from VW's compliance department, who were responsible for ensuring that VW abided by American standards, were also there.

Marc didn't think the presentation would make too many waves, he was mainly just relived he'd finished it on time. He didn't actually identify the cars in the study, referring to them simply as Vehicle A, Vehicle B and Vehicle C.

After he'd delivered his paper, the audience began trying to guess which cars he'd been talking about. For car experts, it wasn't hard to figure it out on the basis of the engine types and the emissions technologies in question. Vehicle A and Vehicle B were obviously Volkswagens.

The Rest is History

One member of the audience was Alberto Ayala, deputy head of CARB and a former faculty member at West Virginia University. He had known Dan Carder for 20 years and he was the man who had allowed the students to use the CARB laboratory in El Monte. He knew about the test results and he knew that Dan Carder's students were reliable.

In winter 2013, even before Marc presented his paper in San Diego, Ayala had visited Wolfsburg and told people at VW about the strange numbers the students had found.

Once Marc Besch, Arvind Thiruvengadam and Dan Carder had left the conference and gone home, the ball started rolling. CARB put together a team of experts that began closely inspecting privately-owned VW diesel vehicles all over California.

The figures compiled by Arvind, Hemanth and Marc began to snowball into something entirely different - and much bigger. The emissions problems were now also a health issue - nitrogen oxide is linked to bronchitis, lung disease and heart problems. In bright sunlight, NOx emissions turn into smog.

NOx emissions are a serious problem in California, a state that's home to a population of 39 million people and 25 million cars, and where the sun shines on most days. That's why California's emissions standards are so strict. And Ayala's California Air Resources Board has made sure that, unlike in Germany, failure to comply with these standards will be investigated. Investigators started demanding answers from Volkswagen. The rest is history.

Back at the CAFEE testing facility in the hills of West Virginia, life continued after Marc Besch's San Diego presentation as though nothing had happened. The investigation underway in California was confidential and for quite some time, the three students had no idea that their test results had sparked an extensive investigation into VW.

Hemanth, Arvind and Marc had moved on to polishing their portable emissions-measuring method. Since putting a generator in the back of a car hadn't exactly been an ideal solution, they were now experimenting with installing the equipment on a trailer attached to the car. But there were problems with this approach too, from air turbulence to altered driving behavior and tricky trailer couplings.

The three would have liked to have continued working as a team. But then Hemanth went to Detroit. Marc also got an offer from General Motors, but chose to stay in research, and Arvind and Marc became increasingly close. As Marc says, they're almost like brothers and they write all of their papers together.

On Sept. 18, 2015, when the United States Environmental Protection Agency revealed VW 's diesel dupe to the world, it had been awhile since Hemanth, Arvind and Marc had even thought about Volkswagen.

Moral outrage is entirely dependent on the standards one expects to be upheld. The three students were mainly glad that an explanation for their results had finally come to light - and they were relieved that, in the end, their figures had proven accurate. Hemanth, Arvind and Marc have high standards when it comes to their own research but they don't necessarily hold Volkswagen to a high moral standard. The technology, they say, is actually pretty interesting.

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