India-born Hemanth Kappanna shot into limelight in 2014 when he, along with two other engineering students from West Virginia University, helped expose Volkswagen’s diesel car emission fraud. It forced the German car-maker to pay $33 billion to resolve criminal charges and lawsuits in the US. Even though he was hailed a hero by the US media, it did not prevent Kappanna from being laid off by General Motors following a restructuring of the company. In an interaction with BusinessLine , Kappanna shares his views on the US auto industry, his exit from GM and what lies ahead for him. Excerpts:
A recent tweet, praising you by New York Times correspondent Jack Ewing — who has written a book on the VW controversy — doesn’t seem to have gone down well with certain sections of the Twitterati...
True. He also wrote a story on my current situation which was also posted on a blog called GM Authority.
There, I have seen some trolls calling it an emotional story, a click-bait; (they) termed me an illegal immigrant, and someone else said that anybody could have exposed this. But we (he and his college mates) bid for this project and we won it getting a grant of $70,000, and nobody could have done the research with less money. A few others asked why is GM being pulled into this.
I have answers for all those trolls. When GM hired me, this news (on VW’s fraud) hadn’t yet broken.
Do you think the auto industry in the US has blacklisted you?
I cannot say for sure; it is all a matter of opinion and there is no evidence. A headhunter had approached me with a job-lead, to work for Porsche. I had already briefed her about my work on VW. After a few days, she came back saying that the hiring manager is not interested in hiring me. You know Porsche is part of VW. So, was I blacklisted? There is no black-and-white answer. It is all grey.
So, what was the reaction at your office (GM) when this scam became public?
When this broke out, I was a calibration engineer working on the 2.8 l diesel engine project. My team, or the head there, did not acknowledge my work. Some people did say I was a celebrity. Our research team also did not bring me into the picture because they thought GM would not allow me to talk to the media. I felt left-out. I was losing my share of the limelight. The legal department gave the green signal for me to interact with the media but asked me to keep GM out of it.
In the meantime, the WVU (West Virginia University (where the original research took place) was holding a seminar on this, and they invited me. But GM sent two others (with no connection to the VW research) to represent the company. But I insisted on going and told my director that I did not mind taking vacation days (leave) for that. He said I can save those vacation days if I submitted a report on the seminar. So, all this did not leave a good taste.
Did GM tell you why you were being let go? (He was initially moved from being a calibration engineer to a certification engineer.)
There were the usual answers. They said it had nothing to do with my background or the green card. They said they are restructuring, and that 4,000 people had to be laid off. Two others were also let go in my division. They were certification engineers who looked at two particular car lines; both the products were cancelled, and hence they had to go.
After I left, I found out that my job was distributed among five different people. I had developed an IT tool for my project which made the job easier. I could have been given another role. The GM policy was to hire only those who had Ph.Ds if they needed an H-1B visa. So I ticked all the right boxes. I still don’t know why I was asked to go.
What do you plan to do now? Have you been approached any other automaker... any Indian company?
I do not know yet. I have to start marketing myself on professional sites such as LinkedIn. If I don’t get any job in the corporate world, I will consider the academia.
If I get an offer from an Indian automaker, I will surely consider it. I am happy that my integrity is still intact; I value that much more now.
By the way, I heard that Leonardo Di Caprio has bought the rights to Ewing’s book, Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal ; I am looking forward to the movie.