From the beginning, Daniel Carder had a hunch.
Before he and his team collected any data on a Volkswagen borrowed from a Craigslist seller, things weren’t adding up. The seller told him in his three years with the car, he had never filled his diesel exhaust fluid tank, which should have made it inoperable.
Carder said he then had a feeling something was askew, and that some recall was possible, but had no idea it would turn into one of the most notorious scandals from a vehicle manufacturer.
The director of the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE) at West Virginia University, Carder led some of the first research that led to massive civil and criminal lawsuits against Volkswagen.
On Friday, a federal judge ordered Volkswagen AG to pay a $2.8 billion criminal fine for using software to cheat its emissions tests, which complements its $1.5 billion in civil penalties. The company pleaded guilty in March to three felony charges including conspiracy to defraud the U.S., obstruction of justice, and the importation of merchandise by means of false statements.
Speaking at a Charleston Rotary Club meeting Monday, Carder said seeing the dollar figures attached to the lawsuits has been incredible.
“We’re amazed it’s been this big — I mean, this is the biggest in history,” he said in a follow-up interview after the presentation.
According to the lawsuit, Volkswagen workers conspired in a “long-running scheme to sell approximately 590,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. by using a defeat device to cheat on emissions tests mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, and lying and obstructing justice to further the scheme.”
Before the crowd, Carder went into some of the nuts and bolts behind how he and his team discovered certain Volkswagen models emitted as much as 40 times the permitted levels of nitrogen oxides while driving. This finding, conducted on the West Coast, led the California Air Resources Board to investigate the manufacturer.
Further investigations unveiled the presence of “defeat devices” installed in the cars, that could sense if regulators were testing the vehicle. When the devices made this determination, they would change the cars’ emission rates, lowering them drastically from what the car would expel if it were driving on the road.
Carder likened it to showing up to an exam when you know all the questions on it in advance. He said because the testing process was standardized, manufacturers essentially knew what would be tested for, how it would be tested, and thus, how to beat it.
Since the project and ensuing scandal, business has been booming for CAFEE. Carder said the students who work through his program are in high demand, and the center itself has been contracted by both manufacturers and regulators alike to improve emissions technology, and help rework environmental regulations as they pertain to vehicular emissions.
As it stands now, there are no new regulations on the books, but Carder said the future will be in on-board testing, instead of the cookie-cutter lab testing the manufacturers managed to circumvent.
“So really, it becomes more focused on how will the emissions controls impact real world emissions, not just the certification standards,” he said. “We know we can lower the standard and keep lowering it, but if you get this situation again, how is it helping?”
On top of the newfound business, he’s hoping some of the criminal penalty money winds up in CAFEE’s pockets, though specifics are far from settled.
Ironically, Carder wrapped up his presentation in defense of diesel technology. He said a perfect storm of market forces and greed led to the Volkswagen scandal, but the technology has torpedoed forward in the decades he’s been involved, and this blemish shouldn’t cause people to forget it.
“It’s truly not a myth, there’s been a lot of media that’s kind of drug diesel technology through the mud as a result of this, but it’s a work in progress,” he said.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at 304-348-4814, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jake_zuckerman.