Longform Stories

As part of a beat reporting class in the Fall 2015 semester, our final project was a longform story. I was the environmental beat (no surprise), and this was the time that the Volkswagen scandal leaked. Researchers at WVU led this project, and I had the opportunity to take on this story and flesh it out. It was published Dec. 2015 here with the rest of my classmates’ stories.

Just another research project

By Jillian Clemente

Greg Thompson and Dan Carder weren’t driven to take down Volkswagen. They were just the unbiased lead researchers in the study that showed Volkswagen cars were releasing 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide into the air. It cost the company $1.9 billion, according to CNN, but only cost the researchers $50,000.

“We just do the research and we report the data, and we try to make sure that the data is good,” said Thompson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University. “Again, we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of these types of programs – we have shown good things. We have shown things that haven’t worked.”

Volkswagen’s diesel engines were one of the things that just didn’t work.

“We set out to do just the opposite of what ended up happening,” Carder said.

The “we” Carder is referencing is the faculty members and collection of common resources at CAFEE, the Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions, within WVU’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. He’s the interim director of the group.

“We’re all pretty much a group of applied engineers that can see interest in anything related to emissions, fuels, engines, anything of the like,” he said.

One resource in CAFEE was the crux of this scandal: the chassis dynamometer.

WVU created the first – and second – portable chassis dynamometer, a device that measures the pollutants in car exhaust. WVU also pioneered exactly where to put the device on the engine to measure those pollutants. These two notable firsts in the state – and the world – revolutionized the mechanical engineering world by allowing researchers to do more experiments and tests in a mobile fashion. That means that the chassis dynamometer can be put into the back of a car or van and be driven around, for performing tests on specific vehicles to transporting the device around the world. If not for this invention, this experiment could not have been completed.

The chassis dynamometer can measure any type of light-duty or heavy-duty engines. Heavy-duty engines are busses, trucks and the like – the ones typically studied by CAFEE – but this experiment called for studying passenger, light-duty diesel engines.

“There’s not a lot of glory in this stuff for most people, but it’s what we’re most interested in,” Thompson said. “When we have the opportunity to do light-duty, it’s something new, something different, and hey, we can look at these two different technologies that’s not used in the heavy-duty side.”

There’s not a lot of glory in this stuff for most people, but it’s what we’re most interested in.”

Plus, there wasn’t a lot of information about the light-duty diesel vehicles.

“We’re looking at passenger car diesel engines, and that was one of the reasons why we proposed to do the work – because there wasn’t a lot of public record or public dissemination of any of that type of information,” Carder said.

It’s why the initial interest was sparked in the project proposed by the International Clean Council of Technology. The ICCT had $50,000 allotted to compare European light-duty diesel-powered vehicles to those also found in the US, and WVU had the best proposal and the right resources – the chassis dynamometer – to do the job.

“This is stuff that allows us to play with big toys,” Thompson said.

The three vehicles chosen to study were written as “Vehicle X” in the initial paper, nixing the make and model. The identities were later revealed and are as follows: Vehicle A, a 2012 VW Jetta; Vehicle B, a 2013 VW Passat; and Vehicle C, a BMW X5. The location of testing was set in California because of connections with the California Air Quality Board and the higher range in change of elevation.

The researchers found that Vehicle A and Vehicle B, the Volkswagens, were producing excess emissions – 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide. These discovered results were not desired from the folks at CAFEE because they support diesel passenger cars.

“We were trying to show the opposite,” Carder said. “We’ve always been proponents of diesel, that it’s a very viable technology. We believe that industry and the regulatory agencies have done a great job of reducing emissions and harmful pollutants from diesel engines. We’ve been trying to support the introduction of diesels into the passenger car market because it’s not something that’s been very well accepted here.”

Consumers were not happy, either. Adam Richter, a now-former VW owner and enthusiast, said, “I don’t think a Volkswagen owner can feel anything but betrayed no matter what car you’re driving. The level of cheating is so, so bad, especially when you consider the issue of decreasing air pollution.

“People who bought diesel thinking they were cleaner using less carbon fuel thinking they were doing something better for the environment were actually making things worse for everybody.”

Consumers around the world were not pleased, either. In the past few months, sales have dropped 50 percent in Brazil and 25 percent in Russia, according to CNN. Overall, the Volkswagen Group, which is also Audi, Skoda, Porsche and Seat, was down 3.5 percent in October.

And Richter was just about to buy another Volkswagen, too.

“This whole scandal and the incredible – for lack of better word – evil thinking that went into it completely turned me off from buying a Volkswagen,” he said.

The only thing that saves me from all of this is that hopefully this is positive publicity for WVU, for Morgantown, and for the state of West Virginia.”

It’s a story for the whole world to be concerned about, and the initial amount of requests for interviews was overwhelming, so overwhelming that WVU’s research writer Marissa Sura became Carder’s temporary media relations person.

“It was like a tidal wave of requests from all over the world,” Sura said. “There’s been a lot of interest from European countries, but also Volkswagens are very popular in other parts of the world, like in Australia and Japan and even Korea. There’s even been interest from countries that don’t sell Volkswagen just because it’s a huge global business story.”

Thompson was meant to answer the initial email from the EPA, but he was teaching a class. Carder ended up responding to that email and a phone call that set his course of work for an indefinite amount of time.

His first phone call was from NBC, and it totally confused Carder. In this confusion, he even forgot the reporter’s name. However, she was very nice, he said. Carder just didn’t have a clue why she wanted to talk to him.

“I’m thinking something’s happened bad, something… who knows,” Carder said. “She said maybe you should go collect your thoughts, take time to check out the Internet and see what’s going on. I did, and we found the story broke.

“When I say I thought things were gonna get big, I figured there’d be a few phone calls from a few media outlets, a few articles or something, but I never would’ve dreamt it would be what it’s turned into,” Carder said.

That’s why he’s extremely thankful for Sura. Luckily, divine intervention helped reduce the amount of requests after the first few weeks – the Pope visited America and the focus shifted to him. However, there are still inquiries to talk to Carder.

“The requests became more detailed about the actual technology because it was less of a business story and more of a technology story,” Sura said.

While there will still be interviews trickling in about Volkswagen, the hope is that there will be more coverage about other findings from WVU.

“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, so I think as long as the story is still unresolved, we’ll probably still get questions about it, not nearly to the volume as when the news first broke,” Sura said. “I think there will always be journalists and readers who are curious about it and I think, as the center (CAFEE) continues to do the work that they do, people will be interested in what they’re doing because they’ve seen what they can do. Even if it’s not related to Volkswagen, I think we’ll continue to get requests about what we do here.”

Bragging about home won’t be a problem for proud West Virginia natives and WVU graduates Carder and Thompson.

“It’s atypical of an average West Virginian for them to be boisterous or go out and talk about how great they are, and I think that that’s kind of sad because there’s a lot of great things going on here and the world doesn’t know about it,” Carder said.

Initially, Thompson was slightly grumpy about the sheer amount of calls because they prevented him from doing his job. Now, he forwards them to Carder and has managed to see a positive side in this overall experience: talking about the wonderful state of West Virginia, his home.

“I’ve got a stack of papers to grade, this is what I’m concerned with,” Thompson said. “I don’t even go out and read the stuff in the newspapers, I don’t watch the news – I just can’t deal with it. I’ve gotta deal with this stuff here. The only thing that saves me from all of this is that hopefully this is positive publicity for WVU, for Morgantown, and for the state of West Virginia. And if it’s positive, then I think I’m doing good things as a faculty member.”