Engineer Who Whistleblowed VW’s Dieselgate Was Just Laid-Off by General Motors
Hemanth Kappanna was on a small team of three grad students who discovered VW’s fraud, but now he’s back in India looking for work.
When the Volkswagen Auto Group was discovered to have falsified its diesel emissions as part of a debacle now known as Dieselgate, dominoes fell throughout the industry. Regulators opened investigations into companies around the globe, many of which were found guilty of programming similar "defeat devices" into their diesel models, but Volkswagen remained the most extensive case of emissions cheating. In the end, the scandal cost Volkswagen and its subsidiaries many billions of dollars, and tarnished the reputation of a previously distinguished automaker.
And none of it would've happened without the work of an engineer by the name of Hemanth Kappanna, who was laid off from General Motors earlier this year according to the New York Times.
In 2013, Kappanna and other graduate students at West Virginia University orchestrated a study that found diesel Volkswagens polluted more than advertised in real-world conditions. They presented their findings at a conference in 2014, where CARB and EPA representatives were in attendance. While investigations snowballed into the scandal whose results we know today, Kappanna broke into the industry at the end of 2014, working for GM in a role that would put him in charge of emissions controls.
But Kappanna's job wasn't secure. GM, in settling on electric cars and automated driving as the future of transportation, realized it needed cash to make these new technologies a reality, cash most easily obtained by streamlining its operations. The solution: kill unprofitable models, close old factories, and get rid of thousands of workers. Kappanna was one of them.
"They let me go," said the now 41-year-old Kappanna to NYT. With the automotive industry expecting a slowdown in the next few years, Kappanna couldn't find a new job during his two months of PTO. When time ran out, all Kappanna had left was a plane ticket to his home country of India. He speculates that his job loss might have pertained to a perceived bias in favor of regulators.
"Certainly they could have seen me as biased. I can't really say," said Kappanna. GM has denied that Kappanna's firing was related to his history of exposing Dieselgate, and the engineer's coworkers were sympathetic to his plight, calling the move "one of those shortsighted decisions taken to meet the numbers."
"It was completely wrong on the part of leadership," Kappanna remembers his coworkers telling him.