Volkswagen whistleblower says he erred in trusting GM, not circulating his CV after 2018 layoffs
Hemanth Kappanna's research exposed Volkswagen’s decade long conspiracy to lie about its diesel cars’ emissions.
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It is a scorching midsummer’s day in leafy Bengaluru, and Dr Hemanth Kappanna, 41, is eager to burn a few calories. “I was never an athlete. In the US, I used to do yoga. Now, I can run 10 km inside an hour,” he says. Following his return to India in May this year, the former General Motors (GM) employee has taken to endurance training at Cubbon Park, a spit of verdant land in the heart of the city.
Kappanna then speaks about the circumstances behind his unceremonious exit from the Detroit-headquartered auto company, where he worked from December 2014 and after being part of a West Virginia University project evaluating engine emissions. “I have no regrets. If I had to go back in time, I wouldn’t do anything differently,” he tells ETPanache during an interview over the phone. In 2014, Kappanna and his fellow researchers at the West Virginia University (WVU) conducted road tests using a portable emission testing device that they developed as an alternative to lab tests done on engines of consumer vehicles. Their findings disturbed the gentle stasis between Big Auto and regulatory authorities, paving the way for more stringent emission control norms.
Volkswagen was forced into the confession box. The German manufacturer admitted to using “defeat devices” in diesel cars to subvert the results of emission tests. According to a report by Forbes, the company had to shell out over $25 billion in fines.
Oliver Schmidt, the general manager in charge of VW’s engineering and environmental office in Michigan, was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2017. Later, some of GM’s own products came under scrutiny. On February 4, 2019, barely a year after Schmidt’s imprisonment, Kappanna was laid off from GM as a part of “corporate restructuring”.
But he does not believe that he may have burned bridges with the automotive industry on account of being perceived as a strict enforcer with split loyalties.
“I have never had a bad performance review in my life. In fact, I was privy to some sensitive information at GM,” he says. “I never expected that I’d get laid off, right till the day it happened.” “I am happy to be in Bengaluru,” he insists. But the summary dismissal from his job still hurts, as do the vestiges of his former life. “Why me?” he asks, in gruff accented English, acquired from living in the US for 17 years.
The enigma of arrival After graduating from Bengaluru’s RV College of Engineering with a specialisation in mechanical engineering, and a stint at TCS, the boy who had never stepped out of the city flew to the US to study at West Virginia University (WVU).
In his early days, an Indian professor at the University, Mridul Gautam, took Kappanna under his wing. He advised him to do a PhD. At that time, Kappanna wanted to start working and make money. But fate steered him towards a PhD, which played a vital role in the way his story panned out.
During the 2008 financial crisis, Kappanna lost his job at Cummins — a Fortune 500 listed engine manufacturer. US law requires foreign workers out of a job to find a new employer within two months. In desperation, he took up work at an Indian company that labelled him a SAP consultant for visa reasons. He didn’t like the job and turned towards the very thing his professor had recommended — a PhD.
When Kappanna first worked for Gautam in 2003, the latter was already developing a mobi le emission measurement system (MEMS) . The cont raption later got renamed as por table emission measurement system (PEMS). Three years into Kappanna’s PhD, a nonprofit organisation called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) approached t he WVU for testing light duty diesel vehicles.
Towards the end of 2012, three graduate students of the WVU travelled to California to test out a few diesel vehicles. All three were foreign students. Arvind Thiruvengadam and Hemanth Kappanna are from Chennai and Bengaluru, respectively. Marc Besch, the third member, is from Biel, Switzerland.
The tests lasted till the spring of 2 013. Their research paper, released among auto industry folk and academia, opened a can of worms about fudged emission data by big brands like Volkswagen.
Smoke and mirrors
In August 2014, Kappanna graduated, and was once again looking for jobs. This time, his luck held. He joined General Motors in December 2014. “Back then, GM hired only PhD graduates who needed visa support. I got the job only because I had a PhD,” he said. At his interview, Kappanna was quizzed on the subject of his project. Most of those questions could not be answered because an investigation was in progress, and he was bound by non-disclosure rules.
Inside GM, Kappanna did not advertise his involvement in uncovering the scandal, and those in the know took his contribution at face value: That his work was a college project.
Even though he did well at the company and even got promoted, he raised eyebrows with the zeal with which he cooperated with regulators like the EPA (Environmental Protection Industry) and the CARB (Cal i fornia Air Resources Board). “Some people at GM thought I was biased towards the agencies,” Kappanna says. Hitting a sour note In November 2018, a notice was circulated internally that GM was going through corporate restructuring. Some of Kappanna’s friends asked him why he didn’t leave and try his luck elsewhere.
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“I said that I was waiting to move up the ladder once others were laid off (laughs). I thought I was doing great as I had a lot of responsibilities,” he says. On February 4, Kappanna plodded through snow-filled streets in sub-zero temperatures to the GM office.
It was as if the wintry chill had seeped into the building. The conference rooms were plastered with white paper. In the impersonal hand of the typescript was written: FOR HR PURPOSE ONLY. “In the afternoon, I got a call from my director and she asked me to come downstairs,” Kappanna said. “I got the news even before stepping into the room. When they deliver the news, you cannot sit and talk. They just say it is a part of restructuring. Your job has been eliminated. It is not your fault. It is nothing personal.”
A security guard escorted him to his desk to let him gather his belongings. In total, 4,000 people lost their jobs that day. “Trusting GM and not sending my resume to other companies when news about layoffs first broke out in November is my own failing,” Kappanna says. “Looking back, I think I was taken for a ride, being asked to stay on to work on emission compliance for gasoline vehicles.”
Since his return to India, Kappanna has been engaged in some freelance work. He has received job offers from the domestic market, but is not ruling out a return to the US as a postdoctoral researcher. “I don’t mind working anywhere if it means doing the right thing. And I would like the air in Bangalore to be clean so I can run anytime.”