Toxic Fallout

Diesel monkey tests trigger purges at VW, Daimler, BMW

Isometric businessman hand pushing fired button to layoff his em
Pop goes the weasel. Source: Fotolia

Top executives at German carmakers are falling like flies after news broke that the companies sponsored tests on animals to demonstrate the harmlessness of diesel emissions. The unfolding drama shows the tests were elaborate public relations exercises masquerading as scientific experiments.

After Volkswagen suspended lobbyist Thomas Steg on Tuesday, Daimler furloughed Udo Hartmann, head of environmental protection at the maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, on Wednesday and BMW suspended Frank Hansen, head of its urban mobility business unit. Both men sat on the board of the now-infamous European Research Association on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, or EUGT, which hired a New Mexico research laboratory to conduct the emissions tests on monkeys.

The latest damaging revelations in the Dieselgate scandal come as German authorities conducted raids in homes of six suspects, looking for evidence that Audi’s efforts to manipulate emissions were wider in scope than previously thought. The number of vehicles sold by the VW unit under fraudulent premises in the US is now suspected to be 250,000, instead of just 80,000.

“We condemn these tests in the strongest terms.”

Jörg Howe, Daimler spokesman

The disclosure that 10 monkeys were locked in a glass cage with diesel fumes from a VW Beetle piped into it reignited the uproar over the carmakers’ repeated efforts to deceive the public about diesel emissions. Other papers then reported tests on healthy humans as well, who were exposed to levels of nitrogen oxide above those permitted by law.

Once again, as they have been throughout the scandal that first broke in 2015, German auto executives were blindsided by the fallout from news of the tests, apparently conducted to counter or at least undermine charges that diesel fumes were harmful.

When the New York Times broke the story on Thursday, the executives raised their eyebrows but didn’t go into crisis mode. Only after outrage among German lawmakers as well as the general public built up over the weekend did they react with the personnel decisions this week. Nor are these heads likely to be the last ones to roll.

The automakers themselves now sharply denounce the monkey tests. “We condemn these tests in the strongest terms,” Daimler spokesman Jörg Howe said. “We are shocked at the nature and implementation of these tests.” The automaker said it was conducting an internal investigation and suspending Mr. Hartmann until it was completed.

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Environmental chief Udo Hartmann is out at Daimler. Other heads are on the block. Source: imago

The EUGT, which was disbanded last year, has in the meantime proven to be more a PR ploy than a genuine research vehicle. The group commissioned the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque to conduct the actual tests. When the LRRI determined that the VW Beetle emissions were actually more harmful than control emissions from an old Ford pickup, the EUGT said the tests were faulty and even withheld the final payment to the research lab.

The World Health Organization had determined in 2012 that diesel emissions were potentially carcinogenic and the EUGT research was designed to cast doubt on that conclusion. This was the purpose of the monkey test, which, after its unhelpful conclusions, was never published. Likewise, the EUGT financed research to refute claims that a ban on diesel cars would reduce toxic emission levels in cities and bought other studies finding fault with data showing some European cities had more air pollution than allowed.

Auto supplier Bosch, which formed the EUGT together with the carmakers, now claims it withdrew in 2013 – before the monkey tests – because it didn’t like the direction the research group was taking. The three carmakers remained on board until the group was shut down last year.

It was VW in any case that was considered the ringleader at EUGT. It was a VW Beetle that was used in the monkey tests. And it was VW that was originally called on the software that reduced emissions during tests from much higher levels in actual performance on the road.

Now the elevators at VW are crammed with lawyers dealing with investigations and lawsuits on several fronts. The company has already spent hundreds of millions on legal counsel. The only stroke of luck for the embattled carmaker is that the monkeys haven’t hired lawyers.

Handelsblatt reporters Markus Fasse, Sönke Iwersen, Stefan Menzel, Martin Murphy, and Volker Votsmeier contributed to this report. Darrell Delamaide adapted it into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.  

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