John German has barely had time to catch his breath all week between appearances on TV news channel and radio phone-in shows. He’s an unlikely media star, not a pop singer or reality TV contestant, but a grey-haired automotive engineer thrust into the global spotlight after he and his colleagues were credited with helping uncover one of the biggest ever corporate scandals.
“We really didn’t expect to find anything,” German said of his research that found Volkswagen had installed sophisticated software designed to cheat strict emission tests across the world. His simple test – checking the car’s emissions on real roads rather than in lab test conditions – led to the resignation of VW’s chief executive after the German company was forced to admit it installed “defeat devices” in 11m cars. The scandal has wiped more than €24bn ($26.8bn) off VW’s market value.
Many questions remain but one thing is clear to German: “It was not an accident,” he said. “A lot of work has gone into this.”
When German finally found a moment of peace this week he called his wife in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “She said: ‘You know you’ve made it now, you can retire and be very happy’,” German told the Guardian as he prepared to board a plane back to Michigan after a week in the spotlight in Washington DC. “No, no, no, I can’t afford to yet,” German told his disappointed wife.
He may have helped uncover one of the world’s biggest corporate scandals, but German earns a modest salary as US co-lead of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) a small nonprofit organisation dedicated to helping to reduce vehicle emissions and has an annual budget of just $12m.
“It has been totally overwhelming,” German said of the global interest in his research this week. “I’ve been doing nothing else [but responding to the media and politicians] for 12 hours a day since Friday,” when US regulators announced their findings against VW based on German’s research] “We’re a small organisation that primarily deals with information on diesel filters, so this is unprecedented and overwhelming.
“As an organisation that is trying to reduce emissions and improve efficiency it is always gratifying to see results from our work, but we never dreamed we would have this kind of impact.”
German explained that the idea to carry out the test, which he described as “very ordinary”, came from Peter Mock, a colleague in Europe, who noticed discrepancies in the emissions of the diesel VW Passat and VW Jetta. He said they decided to carry out on-the-road tests in the US as the emissions regulations are much stricter than in the EU. They expected the cars to pass and they could use this as proof to show Europeans that it was possible to run diesels with cleaner emissions.
German, who has a degree in physics from the University of Michigan and said he “got over halfway through an MBA before he came to his senses”, sought out the assistance of the West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions. The WVU provided a portable emission measurement system that could be put in the car’s boot (trunk) with an attached probe placed in the exhaust pipe.
Then German sourced a Passat, Jetta and a BMW X5 (which also showed emissions discrepancies in Europe) and “had a drive around”. “The VWs were massively exceeding their official emissions readings in normal driving conditions, which was completely inexplicable and totally surprised us,” German said.
Thinking it must be a technical error, the tests were expanded and the cars were driven more than 1,200 miles from San Diego to Seattle – almost the entire length of the west coast of the US.
The VWs nitrogen oxide emissions – which creates smog and has been linked to increased asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses – still exceeded the US standards by up to 35 times. The BMW X5 was within the regulated range.
Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research assistant professor at WVU, who conducted the tests said: “We were doubting ourselves and our procedures and making sure to double check that we were not doing anything wrong. We did so much testing we couldn’t possibly doing the same mistake again and again.
“We were like ‘OK, we’re going to write a lot of journal papers, and we’ll be happy if three people read these journal papers,’” he told National Public Radio last week. “That’s our happiness at that point.”
German published the research in May 2014 and handed it over to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). “There was an expectation that they would find out what was causing the higher-than-expected emissions,” he said. “We did send a courtesy copy to VW to say ‘vehicles B and C are your vehicles and you might like to know’, we had no response.”
There was no response from the EPA either, but keen-eyed German noticed an EPA press release in which VW agreed to recall almost 500,000 vehicles in December 2014 to reinstall software, which it said would solve the higher-than-expected emissions.
However, a couple of months later the California Air Resources Board (Carb) carried out spot checks and discovered that the “defeat device” software – used to dramatically reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions only when the cars are undergoing strict emission tests – was still present.
“That is actually the single most inexplicable thing about this whole business,” German said. “VW had a chance to fix the problem, and they continued to try and cheat and do what they had done. That’s just amazing.”
“Only then did VW admit it had designed and installed a defeat device in these vehicles in the form of a sophisticated software algorithm that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing,” the EPA said in a statement last week.
German said it was unclear how the defeat device software worked, but the software could work by detecting periods when the steering column wasn’t turning but the wheels were which would indicate the car was on dynamo-meters for testing, or could also test for the precise uniform temperature that the tests are carried out at.
“The kind of software it takes to first detect when you’re driving on the official test would be very hard to develop. And then you would need duplicate software to tell the car to have two different emission controls.”
He said it was impossible to know how far up the food chain at VW the fraudulent activity went, but said: “It would have had to be quite a few people involved. It certainly won’t have just been one individual.”
German said VW could have continued in the deceit for the foreseeable future if no one had thought to test the cars emissions on real roads. He said there is no way to know if other car companies may also have been using similar methods to trick official emission tests, but welcomed UK, German and US regulators moves to retest cars emissions on real roads.
German, who drives a 1997 Honda Accord station wagon that he says has pretty good emissions for a manual transmission, said he hopes his work will act as a wake-up call and scare the whole industry into making certain that their vehicles comply with all emissions regulations. “Companies should realise they might get away with stuff for a little while, but it will catch up with them.”
He refused to enter into discussion about what sort of action should be taken against VW, which is facing a fine of up to $16bn in the US alone and a possible criminal investigation. “That’s really up to others, I’m just an engineer from Michigan it’s really beyond my field of reach.”
Source: the Guardian