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Hit global headlines from PhD lab, now waits at home

In 2013, Hemanth Kappanna was a part of a team of three PhD students at the West Virginia University, Morgantown, whose research into the emissions of nitrogen oxides of two Volkswagen cars uncovered the German automobile major’s fraudulent use of “cheat devices” in the US market.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Bengaluru |
Updated: May 10, 2019 7:46:32 am
Hemanth Kappanna, Hemanth Kappanna automobile, Hemanth Kappanna lay off, Hemanth Kappanna fired, phd Hemanth Kappanna, indian express news Kappanna exposed the VW emission scandal. (Express photo: Amrita Dutta)

“It’s 7 degrees Celsius in Detroit now,” says Hemanth Kappanna, flustered even by a mild Bengaluru summer day. He looks for a spot of shade to sit at the National College, where he once cycled to class as a high school student. But, seven days after he returned from the United States, the 41-year-old engineer is finding it hard to slip into nostalgia.

It is the life left behind — from “Caddie”, his beloved Cadillac ATS now parked at his friend’s place, to the yoga community of Royal Oak, the suburb where he lived — that seems inexplicable. “I am still bewildered. Why me?” he asks.

When the history of American automobile industry is written, Kappanna will make more than a footnote. In 2013, he was a part of a team of three PhD students (Marc Besch and fellow Indian Arvind Thiruvengadam were the other two) at the West Virginia University, Morgantown, whose research into the emissions of nitrogen oxides of two Volkswagen cars — the Jetta and Passat — uncovered the German automobile major’s fraudulent use of “cheat devices” in the US market. “It is not a device, but a code written into the car’s software, which signals it to reduce emissions in lab conditions,” says Kappanna, who went on to work at General Motors a year later.

Four years later, though, one of the heroes of Dieselgate, didn’t see a storm coming. This February, Kappanna was one of 4,000 employees laid off by General Motors in a round of restructuring, brought on by fears of an imminent slowdown in car sales. “That whole week was like a rotating door,” Kappanna recalls of the mood in his workplace. “Still, it was out of the blue. The director called me and said, ‘It’s nothing personal, thanks for the service’.” While the HR personnel gave him time to collect his things in a blue bag, he turned it down. “I didn’t want to be watched as a security person accompanied me to my desk. I said, ‘Let me go’,” he recalls.

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Kappanna graduated as a mechanical engineer in 2000 from RV College of Engineering, Bengaluru. The road ahead was well charted — he took up a job at TCS, and then wrote the GRE, like several of his friends. He was accepted as a Master’s student in West Virginia University, which was then making a name for its emissions tests of pickup trucks. “I wasn’t on a scholarship. So I worked hard, did the dishes for an hourly wage at a local joint to get by,” he says. He spurned one of his teacher’s suggestion to do a PhD and instead took up a job. “I was here to make money, I told him,” he says.

The ups and downs of the American dream are not new to him. It was a layoff in 2009 that brought him back to the West Virginia University, where he enrolled as a PhD student. In 2012, the International Council of Clean Transportation, an environmental watchdog, invited the university to test the “clean diesel” touted by German manufacturers. Kappanna and his team wrote a proposal for $70,000 and won the tender. They approached it as just another engineering puzzle. By strapping on a rackety, noisy emissions-testing device to the cars, they took off on the highway. Till then, the cars had only been tested in lab conditions. “The device was like having another passenger in the car. It looked like a sci-fi contraption. It was noisy and smelly. And we were breathing the fumes all the while,” recalls Kappanna of the long road trips that exposed the dirty dealings. “The readings were tell-tale. We had a fair idea that something was wrong,” he says. They filed the report and moved on.

Kappanna was working in General Motors, when the global scandal of Volkswagen’s deception broke. “I remember no one congratulated me on being a part of the research. When I eventually asked my superior, he said GM’s German arm (Opel) had an inkling. ‘But it wasn’t our whistle to blow’,” he recalls.

While he insists that he is not disgruntled, he questions the logic of his layoff. “I do have the education, the knowhow and the courage to stand up and question things. Even if the management pushes… This is what GM should look for in an employee. You should not blindly restructure and lose talent. Look at what Boeing did with 737 MAX. Look at allegations of Ford trying to fudge fuel economy figures. Someone like me can look at the big picture and say, ‘Wait a minute, you have got to slow down’,” he says.

Kappanna spent 17 defining years in America. “When I left, the only other city I had been to was Chennai. The first time I tasted alcohol was in America,” he says. But the road back does not appear that easy. He had 60 days to find a job, once General Motors reported his termination to the USIS on March 1. “It will be even harder from here. One of my friends has just offered to buy my Cadillac. I have asked him to give me a month,” he says.

Back home, he is finding it difficult to get used again to Bengaluru’s ways — from the music blaring from smartphones in public parks to his parents’ anxiety about his career. “My father thinks this is a setback. I don’t. Sometimes, I get angry,” he says. While he is open to work in the automobile sector in India as a consultant, he still hasn’t found a way in. “I think I need to market myself more,” he says, wistfully.

Till he finds his feet, Kappanna would rather recall a farewell message from a friend “back home” in Detroit. “I don’t see a ‘jobless international’ returning to his country of origin because of international law, I see a conquering hero returning home after winning a war against a giant,” reads the testimonial.

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