They didn't set out to make worldwide news, but a discovery by a research team at West Virginia University led to events that rocked Volkswagen, resulting in the resignation of the company's CEO, a vehicle recall and the possibility of more actions ahead, and even has some projecting an impact on the overall economy of Germany.
Friday, Nov. 13, Arvind Thiruvengadam and Marc Besch shared their research story and findings in two sessions with mechanical engineering students and others at the University of Nevada, Reno. The two research assistants work in WVU's Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions - the former lab of Mridul Gautam, University of Nevada, Reno vice president of research and innovation. They are quick to credit Gautam, who is also their doctoral advisor, with creating the laboratory setting and culture that set the path for their research success. Gautam came to the University in October 2013 from WVU where he was associate vice president for research and the Robert C. Byrd Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Thiruvengadam and Besch's research project began through a collaboration with a European nonprofit organization that wanted to understand why vehicles in Europe gave off higher emissions than those in the United States.
"When we started the project, it was not directed at a manufacturer," Thiruvengadam explained. "They were looking for advancements to apply in Europe."
Much of their project was completed in California and involved driving and testing emissions for various cars from Volkswagen and other manufacturers. The California Air Resources Board became interested and offered its laboratory for further testing of the vehicles.
Through the project, differences in emissions results were discovered that, as Besch summarized, "could not be explained by our dataset." From that point, industry regulators intervened and worked directly with the auto manufacturer. Eventually, it was discovered that certain diesel vehicles had a "defeat device" to skew emissions-test results.
Sept. 22, the day shares of Volkswagen AG plummeted nearly 15 percent on Wall Street, was the day that Thiruvengadam and Besch realized the full significance of their work. The research duo estimates they have since completed more than 100 media interviews. They joined with their faculty advisor, Gautam, to provide a keynote panel discussion in Las Vegas on Nov. 3 at the Gabelli Automotive Aftermarket Symposium, the highly respected, annual symposium hosted by Gabelli & Company.
"It's inspiring to think that what you're researching, while it may not seem interesting on the surface, can really do a lot," Brynn Williams, a mechanical engineering student and member of the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that hosted the campus events, said in a KTVN-TV Channel 2 News story about the campus events.
Related to the research, Besch's published study is "Light-Duty Diesel Vehicle Emissions Under Real-World Driving Conditions," and Thiruvengadam's is "Modern Heavy-Duty Diesel Engine Efficiency and Prediction of Future Engine Efficiency."
When it comes to success in the realm of graduate research, Thiruvengadam shared with students the advice Gautam passed along to him.
"Don't get tied up in just one topic," Thiruvengadam said. "It's good to have a perspective on a number of projects.
"It was a really good relationship with my advisor that allowed me to pursue my interests and explore a number of things," he said.