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The team of engineers who outed Volkswagen did their research in LA

The Volkswagen logo is seen at a Volkswagen dealer in Berlin on September 22.
The Volkswagen logo is seen at a Volkswagen dealer in Berlin on September 22.

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Daniel Carder isn’t a whistleblower.

You won’t hear his name mentioned in the same breath as Edward Snowden or Daniel Ellsberg. But make no mistake, the work Carder and his team did helped uncover one of the biggest scandals in the history of the automotive industry. Carder, however, says he never set out to make the discovery he did. As he tells it, he was just doing his job.

Shortly before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency went public with its accusation that popular German automaker Volkswagen knowingly installed software allowing its 2.0 liter, four-cylinder turbo diesel engines to cheat on emissions testing, Carder, an engineering professor at West Virginia University, was at work in the school’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions.

“I got a little heads up from our friends at the EPA and [California] Air Resources Board,” Carder told AirTalk’s Larry Mantle in an interview on KPCC on Wednesday. "To be honest with you, I was in the laboratory and the phone started ringing. It’s been kind of a whirlwind since then. I’m shocked at how big it’s become in terms of international news, but I had no reason to believe that it would come to this.”

That may be because Carder and his team didn’t just recently stumble upon the data they collected that ultimately revealed Volkswagen’s deception. In fact, the research that formed the basis for the EPA’s claim against VW was done right here in Los Angeles, back in the spring and early summer of 2013.

Carder says they were asked to conduct the research after some tests done in Europe showed that some vehicles might not be compliant under all operation. A clean air group called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) gave them $50,000 to take a closer look.

Carder’s team, which has been conducting this kind of research for the last 25 years, used a device called a portable emissions measurement system to record the data, which Carder says is essentially an interconnected system of five suitcase-sized devices that are loaded onto the vehicle and tied into its exhaust system. To ensure realistic results, they chose routes that were heavy on vehicle, highway, and urban activity, which included a trip from L.A. to Mt. Baldy and back as well as one to Seattle and back.

“We were working with colleagues from the Air Resources Board, and they were actually using their lab in El Monte to verify the compliance with certification limits that the vehicles had displayed when originally certified,” Carder says of their reasons for choosing the routes they did. “In addition…portions of the L.A. Freeway were used to derive the cycle that has become one of the standard test cycles for vehicle compliance and certification.”

Carder says when the initial results came back, he was so surprised that he thought maybe his team had made a mistake. But after checking and double-checking the numbers, he said it was clear that their findings were solid.

“We were fairly confident in what we were seeing, and then when the vehicle was delivered to our colleagues at the Air Resources Board, those emissions levels were far below what we were seeing, and suggesting compliance. We’ve been at this for some time, so off-cycle emissions aren’t something new to the world, and we reported what we saw.”

The data were published through the ICCT and the findings were even presented at an emissions workshop in San Diego. VW even contacted Carder and his team to verify the results of their research and ask a few questions about how they got there. He says the thought that VW might have intentionally gamed the system never crossed his mind, and even offered to do additional testing.

“We weren’t suspicious, we just presented what we saw. There was something causing the vehicle to act differently. We had no idea what that would be, and it wasn’t our job to look into what that might be. We just presented the data as we collected it.”

Carder says he doesn’t know whether VW only admitted to cheating the system when the EPA refused to certify their 2016 models, and he says that it’s not likely other manufacturers are trying to game the system too.

“You see the results of the study, and there was another manufacturer there that exhibited very good performance, and was at or below the certification level,” Carder said. “More importantly than that, you’ve got a lot of heavy duty counterparts that use the same kind of technologies, and those technologies are working very well and they’re very successful in reducing emissions.”

Carder doesn’t see himself as the catalyst for uncovering a major corporate scandal, and says that he and his team have done plenty of similar testing in the past, often leading to voluntary recalls.

“We have no stake in this, there’s no reason we want to see Volkswagen fail, so I didn’t even follow the story. It was a complete surprise to me on Friday when the news broke.”

Since the scandal broke last week, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has stepped down and VW has said it will set aside over $7 billion in the third quarter of 2015 to cover the cost of correcting the problems.


Daniel Carder, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and interim director of the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions at West Virginia University