Meet the tinkerer whose invention upended VW emissions scheme

By Ariel Wittenberg | 10/26/2015 01:04 PM EDT

When Leo Breton heard that West Virginia University researchers had cracked a massive scheme by Volkswagen to evade vehicle emissions tests, he had one question: What system helped them cracked the code?

When Leo Breton heard that West Virginia University researchers had cracked a massive scheme by Volkswagen to evade vehicle emissions tests, he had one question: What system helped them cracked the code?

"I did a search, and it turns out, they used mine," Breton said in an interview. "I was very happy to learn that."

Now a technology development manager at the Department of Energy, Breton, 52, was supervising emissions tests at U.S. EPA’s Virginia Testing Laboratory in Alexandria 20 years ago when he invented the Real-time, On-road, Vehicle Emissions Reporter, or ROVER.


No one who knows Breton was surprised ROVER took a bite out of Volkswagen’s emission cheats.

Leo Breton
Leo Breton invented the ROVER technology, which caught VW recently, 20 years ago when he was working at the EPA’s Virginia Testing Laboratory. | Photo courtesy of Leo Breton.

When the soft-spoken engineer isn’t at the office, he’s tinkering in the basement of his Washington, D.C., home, where he has invented seven new technologies in the past 20 years. He has another five projects on his to-do list before he thinks about retiring.

Gurpreet Singh, who supervises Breton at DOE, describes him as the perennial problem solver.

"I think it’s a testament to the fact that he’s just a great engineer with a great understanding of how things work," Singh said. "If he doesn’t know something, he quickly picks it up. He has a fundamental understanding of physics and how things fit together and how they work."

Breton’s work on ROVER began in 1995 with a simple question: Do emission results in the lab relate to the road?

Back then, the agency placed cars on rollers that would calculate the engine’s power while emissions were tallied in testing rooms heated to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. There were many real-world factors the lab couldn’t consider (Greenwire, Oct. 6).

"For me, it was an obvious question," Breton recalled. "I was just generally interested in what was happening outside of our test cycle."

Months later, after hours of basement tinkering, Breton hatched ROVER, which would measure emissions from inside a car’s tailpipe while its equipment was neatly stashed in the back seat.

The technology quickly made waves. In the year of its invention — and five years before it was patented — ROVER would help EPA investigate Cadillacs, demonstrating that almost 500,000 vehicles were emitting up to 10 grams of carbon monoxide per mile when the air conditioning was turned on.

General Motors ultimately paid an $11 million fine and recalled 470,000 cars — the first recall for environmental reasons. And the Department of Justice gave Breton a certificate of commendation for helping its probe.

"At the time I invented it, I didn’t have any reason to believe that there were defeat devices in use," Breton said, referring to technology that disables emission controls. "It really was a general-interest thing when I got started, but the timing was such that it helped in an investigation."

EPA continued to use ROVER, relying on it for enforcement actions issued in the late 1990s but largely stopped using it in 2001 when the agency closed the Virginia lab.

The agency never developed regulations requiring on-the-road, real-time tests using ROVER or similar devices.

Breton stayed at EPA in Washington until 2008, in part, he said, to ensure the technology would become available on the commercial market.

ROVER was eventually licensed to Horiba Ltd. and Sensors Inc. West Virginia University would later use the Horiba device in its Volkswagen tests.

"I needed to make sure it wouldn’t disappear without me," Breton said. "If I left too soon, I was worried the whole thing would have collapsed."

‘Set it and forget it’

ROVER might never have been invented if a cogeneration power plant at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., had been working correctly in 1985, when Breton was completing his senior year there.

Plant managers asked the university’s physics department to choose a student to help determine why the plant was only realizing two-thirds of its projected energy savings, and professors chose Breton.

Years later, Breton recalls he had not thought much about energy until then but agreed to help the investigation in part because he already had a hunch.

Walking to and from class, he had noticed that a cooling tower had been venting an unusual amount of steam. Breton investigated and learned he’d had the right hunch.

"It wasn’t something I set out to do, but I’ve been interested in energy efficiency ever since," Breton said.

And he’s been interested in dreaming up technological fixes to real-life problems.

His wife, Julia Tillman, said Breton began working on his latest at-home invention when he saw her boiling water without covering the pot.

"He would tell me it’s not energy efficient, and I would tell him that if I put the top on, it will boil over too quickly," she said. "And then all of a sudden he was in the basement working on something to improve it."

The result: a smart stovetop that can sense when a pot is about to boil over and turn down the temperature, allowing for the cook to leave a pot covered and not worry about it boiling over.

The "set it and forget it" model saves 50 percent of energy used in uncovered cooking, said Breton, who is now trying to market the innovation.

During Breton’s work on the project, the couple and their two children would cook meals in the basement, carrying water downstairs to boil everything from pasta to rice to vegetables in order to check that the system could react properly no matter the dish being served.

His 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son will get in on the action, both keeping their own "invention journals" in which to record ideas.

"The way he approaches our household, he is always thinking of technology that could improve it, so the kids just kind of think that way," Tillman said. "It’s kind of cute."

‘All the easy stuff is done’

During his five-year break between EPA and DOE, Breton’s inventions led him to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a car technology company where he helped develop electronic controls for improving fuel economy.

At DOE for the past five years, Breton has managed the advanced combustion engine project, consulting with engineers at the national laboratories and universities who have received grants to invent ways to control emissions while making engines more energy-efficient.

The technology is critical to DOE’s SuperTruck program, which aims to improve energy efficiency in truck engines.

Lately, Breton’s team has been creating computer models of how engine combustion emits pollution in the hopes that those tools could help the auto industry with its own innovations.

The work is bolstered by Breton’s work on ROVER, DOE’s Singh said, saying Breton gained a deep understanding of engine technology.

"Because of the work he did at EPA, he has a fundamental understanding of how engines work and create emissions, which is crucial to what we are doing now," he said.

Breton, who says he loves cars but is "more a techie type than a gearhead," gets a charge out of his latest technological puzzles.

"Technically, it’s very difficult work because you’re not just figuring out how to do something, you’re figuring out how to do it better than the smart people who came before you," he said. "These engines have been optimized for 100 years. All the easy stuff is done. The hard part, the puzzle, is making it better."