Bengaluru: Hemanth Kappanna was the man at the centre of a tailpipe emission scandal, now known as Dieselgate, which caught the attention of the global automobile industry in 2015. These days, he is both bewildered and amused by the attention he has gotten after being laid off by the same industry he roiled as a PhD student. Earlier this year, Kappanna was laid off by General Motors Co. (GM), along with 4,000 other employees, as part of a “restructuring exercise".

The post-firing spotlight has far exceeded the media attention he got during the Volkswagen AG (VW) emissions scandal, he says.

If an early 21st century history of the automobile industry is written, Kappanna, 41, would probably be mentioned as the one who changed the business, or at least altered its course. It is a classic David versus Goliath story, where the research findings of Kappanna, along with two other PhD students at West Virginia University (WVU), led to the German automaker VW being pulled up for lying about its diesel car emissions and for using a cheat device in its cars in the US. The ensuing scandal cost big money—an estimated $33 billion in fines and damages ($23 billion in the US alone).

By the time the emissions scandal broke in 2015, Kappanna had already begun working as a calibration engineer at GM. As regulations tightened and became more stringent for carmakers in the aftermath of the VW scandal, he was, in fact, helping GM comply with the tougher disclosure norms.

In an interview at a beautiful green spot in old Bengaluru, Kappanna, co-principal investigator of the VW Dieselgate case, spoke about the future of diesel, the natural progression towards electric vehicles (EVs), and the opportunities that he hopes to find in India. Edited excerpts:

What is your current state of mind?

I am trying to keep myself busy, going with the flow, and looking at career options in India. After the GM episode, I wanted my story to be out because I was hailed as a hero, at one point of time. But somewhere along the way, there was no recognition.

When news of the VW emissions scandal broke in 2015, a few media houses from India picked it up but the news died down quickly. I was in the background, working in GM. I was the only one from the original research team who was working outside WVU. GM has a code that employees can’t go out and speak to the media. I was kind of forgotten.

Looking back, how did your research findings impact the US auto industry? How did large corporate houses react?

Our research led to more regulations in the European Union (EU) and more scrutiny in the US. The corporates took note of it, and had to factor in the extra time needed during the product development phase because of the new regulations. The research findings also made the government and ordinary consumers question the ethics and integrity of large corporations.

How did the VW emissions scandal impact diesel vehicles in general?

Because of VW Dieselgate, diesel passenger vehicles got bad press... to the extent that diesel vehicles were being banned from entering the city limits of major cities like Paris and London. Diesel, all of a sudden, became a problem child. But diesel is here, for sure. Given the tough regulations, some of them (carmakers) also decided to venture into EVs. Dieselgate kind of catalyzed the process, making the transition faster, and also propelled some companies to join the electric bandwagon. We are moving towards EVs, which is evident.

How would you evaluate your four-year stint at GM?

GM was a great company to work with and a competitive place. There are people who struggled, and there are people who excelled. You have to do your job to get noticed. I always made sure that I am of value to the company. I started off by working as a calibration engineer for a new 2.8 litre diesel engine that was being released in the US market. When they were developing that product, the VW diesel scandal hadn’t broken yet. Eventually, GM did face some challenges from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board during the launch of the product due to additional scrutiny. Earlier, it used to be an easy process but because of the VW news, the regulators started looking closely and scrutinizing the certification for diesel engines.

When the 2.8 litre diesel engine was being introduced, there was a point when EPA tested (the engine) randomly at a higher vehicle speed and it showed higher emissions. They were struggling to explain to EPA, and that’s when I said “can I help?"

I generated data, experimented, and came up with an answer, which was presented to the EPA. The agency eventually accepted the explanation and approved the certification application. It’s my chart which is still being used to explain certain things to the EPA. So, I had to prove myself. Nothing was given to me on a platter.

I worked on two new engines of different capacities and was in three positions: calibration engineer, controller integration engineer, and then auxiliary emissions control devices (AECD) engineer.

The AECD engineer’s role was newly created as a result of the VW emissions scandal, and I was allowed to move to this new position in March 2018, even though I had put in only a year in the previous role, which is rare. For another product, a 3 litre diesel engine which was being launched in the US, I put out a 110-page disclosure document which would be presented to the EPA six months before launch. In my division at GM, I was the only PhD, and was I working towards becoming a technical fellow in emissions and compliance, maybe in the next five-six years.

How do you then compare your achievements to what transpired in your last few months as an employee?

Last November, GM announced that it was launching a restructuring process to reduce the number of white collar jobs. They started off with a voluntary separation scheme for employees who had worked for 12 years or more.

At that point, I had a good opinion about GM. In December, when I was in India for my vacation, I could see emails about the number of people taking up voluntary separation and leaving. I returned in January, and it was work as usual, though the morale was low. Then, another announcement came, saying that the company would go for involuntary separation because they didn’t get enough number of people (to leave).

My friends, in other companies, would ask me too apply and leave but I liked the job I was doing. I believed in the company’s vision. I felt this is a great company to be associated with and never thought of looking for a job outside.

On 4 February, when the involuntary separation happened, the director of the division called me. I was told that in the “reorganization" process, my role was completely eliminated. “Thanks for your service and nothing personal." Of the 50-60 people in the division, three people were let go, the other two were older, and their role was directly tied to two cars whose production was being stopped. My role can’t be eliminated as long as there are internal combustion engines.

I found out later that they had distributed my role to five different people. This was made possible because I had made the job simpler by commissioning an information technology tool so that anyone can put a compliance document together, since the people who would put the document together are not always experts who can question what goes in.

It shows how corporates rely on tools and processes more than the people and their expertise.

I used the 60 days for job hunting and looked for other options. Being on an H-1B visa turned out to be the biggest hurdle in landing a job. My friends spoke to hiring managers in certain companies, where they wanted to bring me in, but the HR policies did not allow that. That’s how I could not get a job.

Did things change for you in GM when the VW news broke?

Not to the extent as I had expected. People didn’t really sit up and take notice and I also played it down. Several times, I was put down and I had to stand up for myself. In GM, for example, somebody made a comment saying “look at you, you have no experience and still you have been brought into this role (AECD engineer)". It was an off-the-cuff comment by a tech fellow, and I told him not to jump to conclusions and that I have enough background to do the role. He looked me up on Google right there and later apologized.

The tech fellow said in the organization 90% of the employees are sales people and they don’t even know what Dieselgate is.

What’s your take on the strategy of companies like VW and others in the electric technology space?

VW, even though it is late, is going big on EVs. Again, thanks to VW, and the money they gave to the US government... a lot of those funds are being used to promote electrification of vehicles, to put more charging stations, and to do research in reducing the charging duration.

So, the money is being spent in that domain and there is a big push towards electrification. Once they get the charging (process) fast enough, then I think more people will start looking into it. In the US, range anxiety is always there for EVs because for regular conventional fuel, you have gas stations at almost every mile. But that’s not the case with charging stations for EVs.

What do you think of the future of diesel in India after 2020?

Next year happens to be when Bharat Stage VI emission norms go into effect. It is a derivative of the Euro 6 norms. Because of the VW scandal, the regulations got a little more stringent, requiring more testing. These tests require original equipment manufacturers to prove themselves in on-road conditions, which was never the case earlier.

In India, where subsidies on diesel have been removed, the shift has made carmakers think that the playing field has levelled in terms of cost (between petrol and diesel), and there is no benefit in going for diesel. But they don’t realize that diesel vehicles are much more fuel efficient in comparison to gasoline.

But because of the tighter regulations, diesel engines are going to be phased out. In India, too, there’s a lot of negative publicity going around about diesel vehicles.

Euro 6 diesel engines are as efficient as petrol, so why are companies moving away? Is cost main the barrier?

Diesel engines are much more efficient than gasoline (or petrol). When you have to comply with stringent regulations, it takes a huge amount of engineering resources to develop an engine, and the parts required could get expensive. Hence, making a whole new product is cost prohibitive.

What’s the way forward for the automobile industry?

An EV takeover will not happen in my lifetime at least. It will take a few more generations to get there. Every new solution will also have its own problems. There is already research out there that says the (life cycle) carbon footprint of electrifying is also higher than regular internal combustion engines. Because getting the rare earth metals used in producing the batteries can be very energy intensive. If you look at it in a holistic way, the carbon footprint of electric cars is much higher than gasoline vehicles, unless the electricity is generated from alternate energy sources like solar and wind.

People are doing a lot of research and putting money into developing fuel cell vehicles, but the challenge there is hydrogen. You have to produce hydrogen and also store it. Hydrogen being the lightest element cannot be easily stored. It is also volatile and explosive. In the US, the government is spending money to take the technology further.

Given a choice between research and a corporate job, what would you choose?

I have put in equal amount of time into both academia and the industry, and I can find myself working in either of them, as long as the role is challenging and exciting.

Auto is a sector which I am obviously looking at. With the Bharat Stage VI regulation coming in, I would like to play a key role in helping the auto industry in India. Because I am familiar with the compliance realm. Bengaluru, being a technology hub, I may even look at data science and data analytics. I feel the field has enough exciting things to offer.