German automaker's monkey business: Emissions scandal takes a disturbing twist

<i> Image: AFP / Philipp von Ditfurth </i>
<i> Image: AFP / Philipp von Ditfurth </i>
Philipp von Ditfurth

Germany - The "demonisation" of diesel continues.

Although VW posted record revenues last year, totalling the largest sales volume of any car brand, the spectre of its American emissions scandal still looms.

Despite not influencing sales, the damage to VW’s image as a responsible corporate citizen has not been immaterial as the group reported a fantastic 2017 sales year – nor have the fines payable to US administrators, which total a tidy $4.3bn. But now, it’s just got worse.

In a world where social justice extends beyond human rights and into the animal realm, disturbing documentation has detailed how VW commissioned diesel emission testing - on monkeys. It sounds absurd, like something from a Cold War spy thriller, but unfortunately for VW (and the monkeys involved), it’s all true.

Documentation uncovered by the New York Times specify a bizarre decision taken by VW during 2014. In a bid to illustrate that diesel car emissions were not that harmful to humans, VW commissioned the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, to conduct experiments and produce data proving that modern turbodiesel engines, did not imperil the health of pedestrians. Dailmer, BMW and Bosch were reportedly involved, reports the NYT.

In a statement, VW said: "We apologise for the misconduct and the lack of judgement of individuals. We’re convinced the scientific methods chosen then were wrong. It would have been better to do without such a study in the first place."

VW "distances itself clearly from all forms of animal abuse", the group said in a statement on Saturday, after the New York Times reported that a US institute commissioned by German auto firms carried out tests on 10 monkeys in 2014.

The embarrassment deepened for the group on Monday as German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported tests on the effects of inhaling toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) were also carried out on about 25 people. 

Breaking the US diesel barrier

For VW, the logic it wanted validated was obvious; German automakers eager to sell greater volumes of their turbodiesel engines in the world’s most important car market (North America). To accomplish this, they would have to convince American customers and regulators, who were both suspicious and unfamiliar with diesel passenger cars, that VW’s engines were miraculously better than anything else imaginable.

To execute its mandate European Research Group consulted with the accredited Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This, unfortunately, is where the testing methodology went awry – badly. Animal testing is a sensitive subject, best avoided unless required in the most exceptional circumstances.

The Lovelace Institute, with consent and awareness from the group, rigged a wildly inappropriate experiment which featured ten macaque monkeys, a VW Beetle and a gas chamber. It was always going to be a public relations disaster once the public found out.

Exhaust gas from the Beetle, operating on rollers, was diluted and recirculated into the gas chamber housing those ten macaques – all of which were allegedly calmed during the experiment by being screened cartoons, reports the New York Times.

Cheat software

The Beetle being used was equipped with VW’s now notorious emissions testing recognition software, which recognised when a vehicle was being subjected to a laboratory or open-road test cycle, cutting engine performance and emissions dramatically.

From the first moment exhaust gas came into contact with those monkeys, the research was scientifically useless due to a rogue element in the form of the cheat-device enabled VW Beetle being used. It was always going to generate an artificially low volume of all the critical pollution parameters.

Volkswagen apologised for the animal testing at the weekend, saying the group "distances itself clearly from all forms of animal abuse".

The disclosures sparked widespread outrage, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel who strongly condemned the latest controversy to engulf the nation's powerful but scandal-tainted auto industry.

Merkel's spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, said: "These tests on monkeys or even humans are in no way ethically justified. The indignation felt by many people is completely understandable."

The European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, which commissioned the experiment on behalf of the German automotive industry, no longer exists but its role is the most disturbing. And VW was not alone in funding its research and operational budget.

BMW and Daimler have both admitted to sponsoring the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, although both claim they knew nothing of the eventual ten-monkeys-and-Beetle experiment conducted in America.

Much as tobacco and food research institutes are funded to produce data that influence policy makes and public opinion with apparently irrefutable scientific evidence, it’s deeply troubling that the German automotive industry would feel a need to do the same concerning the viability of diesel cars.

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