Swiss automobile engineer Marc Besch looks back on what it was like to be part of the research group that first noticed something odd about Volkswagen diesel engines, in one of the biggest manufacturing scandals of the modern era.
Are you a nerd?
Marc Besch: (laughs) Yes, a bit, I guess.
The “Spiegel” magazine used that word to describe you.
M.B.: Well, it is true that almost every discussion that we have in our team has to do with work.
Are you that passionate about emissions technology?
M.B.: I am a researcher, and I certainly have a great fascination with technology. I like to be actively doing something myself, not just looking at theory. I have been living on [the University of West Virginia] campus for ten years, and by this stage I am an assistant professor, but I spend the whole day with students.
You are one of the three researchers who blew the lid off what must be the biggest scandal in German industry in the post-war era. You were just at a conference in Berlin – how did people there react to you?
M.B.: Conferences mainly attract experts. These groups know about our Institute anyway. So the quality of the work and the research are the main focus of interest, not so much the media profile. But I am more easily recognised now – people come up to me, and ask me things.
Tell us how you found out about the diesel scandal.
M.B.: In the beginning, we got a research contract. The situation was that nitrogen oxide emissions measured in European cities were higher than the modelling had predicted. The expectation had been that the emissions would go down with the stricter standards for exhausts, but that hadn’t happened. So questions were being asked. In the US, the same diesel cars were on the market, but the standards they had to meet there were even stricter. So the basic idea was to look at the US to see how diesel cars can be clean.
It wasn’t an easy road, because the research budget got cut back.
M.B.: Yes, at the end we only had $70,000 (CHF69,405) to spend. That’s not much, if you want to test cars thoroughly out on the road. We also moved the testing to California, because the state has more diesel vehicles in use, and we had already set up our mobile laboratory over there.
It’s nice, too, driving along the Pacific coast.
M.B.: For sure. It was February, in West Virginia it was cold and they had snow, but in California it was warm and sunny. So that wasn’t bad.
The measurements were clearly not easy to do – you had to do a lot of adjusting and improvising.
M.B.: Our instruments had been developed for truck applications, and we had to fit them into a VW Jetta and a Passat. We had to fit in a generator, too. We were able to pipe its exhaust fumes out, but the generator is noisy and gives off heat. There was also a compressor running… We tried to drown the whole thing out with the radio but it sure was loud.
That doesn’t sound like having fun cruising around the way they do in the movies.
M.B.: It was fun to do the whole thing, but after a few hours in all that noise you certainly had enough.
What thoughts occurred to you, when you saw the first test results?
M.B.: We already knew the technology from earlier work on trucks. What we understood was this: when the engine reaches a certain temperature, the technology is activated and you should then see significant change in the concentration of exhaust fumes, say when you leave city traffic behind and get out on the highway. This change was precisely what we were not seeing. So we started to wonder: what have we done wrong? Haven’t we calibrated the measurement devices correctly? So we checked everything and compared it with the machinery back in the lab. Our equipment was working perfectly, so the fault had to be somewhere else.
The pollutants were up to 35 times higher than what the manufacturer claimed. Didn’t you get suspicious?
M.B.: You have to understand, we tested just two cars with two different technologies. Statistically speaking, the findings could be just due to chance. In the lab, the cars had performed exactly as they were supposed to. So we thought there must be some technical problem. These systems are quite complex, they take a lot of calibrating, so it could be that something had gone wrong there.
"We started to wonder: what have we done wrong? Haven’t we calibrated the measurement devices correctly?"End of quote
It is striking that in your final report you just stated the findings, but you didn’t try to comment on them or interpret them.
M.B.: All we really knew was that something was not working like it was supposed to, but investigating the cause was not part of the research assignment. We could find no other studies that might have supported or explained our findings. From a scientific point of view, you have to be careful in stating your conclusions. If we had said any more, it would just have been assumptions, not scientifically-based findings.
Didn’t you think at all that it might be due to fraud?
M.B.: We joked to one another, off and on, that it might be deliberate. But in the US in 1998, there had been a similar case involving trucks which, thanks to a piece of software, showed better emission values under test conditions than they did on the road. These manufacturers were then dealt with pretty severely. So we couldn’t seriously believe that the biggest auto maker in the world would do something like that deliberately.
The regulatory body in California got very interested, though, when you announced your results.
M.B.: We were talking to them even during the project. Our report prompted them to take action. These regulators had the means to mount a full investigation.
When did you find out what was really going on?
M.B.: In January 2015 we heard of particular kinds of cars being recalled by Volkswagen, and so we assumed our work must have helped to identify some technical problem. Then on September 15, 2015, we found out the real reason – just from the media.
"We couldn’t seriously believe that the biggest auto maker in the world would do something like that deliberately."End of quote
What were you thinking at that stage?
M.B.: I felt pretty sad. German engineering technology had a great reputation up until then, including in the US. I never thought that German engineers would resort to such tricks to get their product to market. I have some friends who work as engineers for GM. Management had put a lot of pressure on them to bring equivalent products to the market, but with all their efforts they just couldn’t match Volkswagen’s emissions values. So it’s sad to think that someone would take that kind of shortcut just to get a business advantage. The technology is actually good – we had seen that in trucks.
Volkswagen has so far spent €25 billion cleaning up the mess, and people have been jailed. The Volkswagen company is not likely to offer you a job anytime soon, are they?
M.B.: No, nobody from our team, I guess. Though when you think of it, there are software companies who hire hackers...
Volkswagen seems to have really gone out of its way to cheat. In Europe there are 4,500 premature deaths annually due to to pollutant emissions. If a car puts out 35 times what’s allowed, human lives are at stake.
M.B.: That’s true. But if you take the long view, it becomes a bit more relative. The actual absolute emission values today are still less than what they were ten years ago, so there has been progress. But deliberate manipulation of emission values in full knowledge of the consequences for the environment and human beings, and the deliberate flouting of laws – that is criminal for sure.
Should we think of the auto industry as being like cycle-racing in the 1990s – cheating going on everywhere?
M.B.: The industry is highly competitive – they are trying to keep down costs everywhere. It’s no secret that manufacturers do all they can to exploit what loopholes there are. You also find that the lawmakers have not been able to understand how the new technologies actually work, and have therefore not been able to lay down really effective rules and standards. It was this diesel scandal that showed how urgent this is getting. Since September 1, 2017, cars in Europe have to be certified on the road, and not just in the test lab.
If you are so keen on the engineer’s ethic, how can you explain to yourself that things could get so bad at VW? It wasn’t just a couple of people who knew about this cheating.
M.B.: I’ve thought about it a lot. A lawyer who was talking to me said, “the answer as to how this could have happened will come from the accountants”. I assume that the risks they were running and the profits they were expecting were weighed against one another. But everyone involved had his own story, I guess – maybe he was under pressure and had to feed a family.
Is there a need for the professional code for engineers to say that someone is not to use his skills as a party to fraud?
M.B.: Well, that was what I took away from my studies in Switzerland. I was not to use my skills to harm other people, or to develop weapons, say. The basic ethic of the engineer should be to improve things.
The head of your institute, Dan Carter, was named by “Time” Magazine in 2016 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Doesn’t he have you and the others in the group to thank for that?
M.B.: We regarded that as recognition for the whole group. Our team functions like a family. If we don’t work together, we spend free time together. We don’t go straight home after work, but get together for a drink and talk about our results.
At the recent German diesel summit the automakers got off fairly lightly – instead of a costly redesign of the car they just have to update the software. What do you think of that?
M.B.: With this software fix, the tolerance values in Europe can apparently be met. In the US, some of the cars will not be allowed to be on the market because they are technically unable to meet the required standards. Other categories of vehicle will have to be redesigned. The solution is still not quite worked out. For VW, it’s not over yet.
One gets the impression that politicians in Germany handle VW with kid gloves. There are noticeabley close relationships, so that the premier of a German state has a speech rewritten by VW. How do you see this?
M.B.: It is certainly best if lawmakers, regulators and manufacturers are clearly distinguished. That is true for any system.
What is your view on the future of diesel?
M.B.: In the transportation sector, diesel will be the most important engine technology for quite some time. There is no substitute that would make economic sense. As regards light passenger vehicles, though, diesel will most likely disappear. The cost of getting the emission values down to the required level is just too high.
Is it foolish on the part of German’y rightwing AfD party to demand that the German government make a “commitment to diesel”?
M.B.: Basically, it doesn’t make sense to give the preference to any particular technology. The political level should set the maximum values allowed, but then the winner should be whatever technology can do this in the most economical way.
The German auto industry is now looking pretty backward, as far as new engine technologies are concerned. How do you see its future?
M.B.: Volkswagen was back as No. 1 worldwide a year after the scandal...Qualitatively speaking, Volkswagen still has good technologies, and I see no great harm done to the German automakers. They have committed themselves to drastically increasing the proportion of alternative types of engines. Looking at it from that point of view, maybe this whole diesel scandal was a bit of needed input.
The pressure is there without a doubt. Volvo intends to produce only electric and hybrid cars in future.
M.B.: That is true, but there will have to be a lot of development work done. Electricity or hydrogen are not primary energy sources. They have to be produced somehow. In the US, power is often produced by coal-burning plants, so you have to wonder, on balance, if a clean sort of diesel doesn’t make more sense than an electric car, given that President Trump wants to make coal great again.
You drive an old Jeep yourself, I read somewhere.
M.B.: No, it’s a new one. I bought it out of interest in the technology.
That’s an easy thing to say.
M.B.: (Laughs) Well, I do like cars.
It must be a pretty big one.
M.B.: It is – but not really in the US context. My main interest in buying it was this technology, as the car now has the emissions technology that I am concerned with in my research.
The idea of an electric car doesn’t attract you?
M.B.: No doubt there are fields where the electric engine makes a lot of sense. The problem is that hardly anybody is prepared to give up the convenience they are used to, like being able to fill up quickly with fuel. But basically a car is there to get me from point A to point B with the greatest possible efficiency and the least possible harm to man and the environment. The technology that can best do that should be the one that succeeds.
In this attitude, you differ from many of the folks in West Virginia. There, it is a popular hobby among pick-up truck owners to dismantle all the filters and then, when stopped at intersections, to envelop cyclists and pedestrians in a fog. It is hard to imagine that the future is being developed in such a place.
M.B.: I get mad myself, when I see that. It is unhealthy – and why harm someone who has done you no harm? I don’t understand that. But our Institute still has a very good reputation for applied emission measurements.
How do you see your own future?
M.B.: I like the university environment a lot. I can engage in research, and be freer and more flexible. I like working with students – they come from all over, and I keep learning things myself. But to build a career, it would probably not be a bad thing to get some industry experience.
Would you be likely to return to Switzerland?
M.B.: Originally I went to the US just for a two-year Masters degree, but now I’ve been here ten years. Sometime I would like to go back to Europe or Switzerland, since I’ve seen enough of the little university city of Morgantown.
You don’t seem to be terribly homesick, though.
M.B.: That’s right, yeah.
Born in 1982, grew up in the Swiss city of Biel-Bienne.
Apprenticed as an auto mechanic, earned a vocational school leaving certificate, then from 2003 to 2007 took a degree in automobile technology at the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Biel.
Since 2007, has studied and worked at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, USA. In his doctoral thesis, he studied and developed miniaturised exhaust particle sensors for emission control and engine diagnosis.
Since 2016, Besch has been a Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions at West Virginia University.
He enjoys science and technology, mountain biking and travelling.end of infobox
Translated from German by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch/The interview was published in the Bieler Tagblatt newspaper on October 21, 2017