Dead End

German carmakers cornered after toxic gas tested on humans

Germany’s Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt And Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks Hold Diesel Summit
NOx is explosive stuff. Source: Bloomberg

VW’s emissions scandal, involving 11 million heavily polluting diesel cars and €24 billion ($29.6 billion) in costs, is in its third season and has reached a new climax – if a new low can be considered a new climax.

A German research group, founded and funded by VW, BMW and Mercedes-maker Daimler, commissioned toxic gas tests on humans and monkeys. Two German newspapers and the New York Times revealed the experiments, which took place between 2012 and 2015, before Dieselgate became public.

The so-called European Research Association on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, known for its German acronym EUGT, officially aimed to study the effects of traffic on humans and the environment. Unofficially, the goal was to produce research that showed modern diesel cars were no longer as harmful as their predecessors, according to the reports. After all, VW, BMW and Mercedes-Benz depended – and still depend – heavily on diesel sales.

Now, the two studies designed to prove diesel’s harmlessness are hitting the carmakers like a boomerang.

A slow-motion crash that can’t be averted.

One studied exposed 10 macaque monkeys to nitrogen oxide, a toxic gas primarily emitted by diesel cars. It can cause asthma and contributes to the creation of smog. The apes sat in closed chambers and watched cartoons to keep them calm. They inhaled the exhaust from a Ford diesel car built in 1999 and a allegedly cleaner diesel, a VW Beetle, from 2012. Scientists of the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, conducted the test on behalf of the German association. They didn’t know that the Beetle was actually one of VW’s manipulated diesel cars, which lowered emissions during the test, but increased them on the road.

As if that – in the face of existing scientific research – wasn’t bad enough, academics at the RWTH University in Aachen subjected 25 healthy people to different levels of NOx gases and up to three times the legally allowed level in offices, Stuttgarter Zeitung reported. The professor who led the experiments, Thomas Kraus, had doubts that reportedly pushed him to check with the faculty’s ethics committee before moving forward.

Over the weekend and into Monday, the three carmakers, German politicians and experts all strongly deplored the tests. And some even want to see heads roll. A couple of readers of the New York Times’ website, which reported on the test with monkeys last week, made reference to the Nazi regime – the fascist regime founded VW in 1937 and performed experiments in which it executed people using car exhaust during World War II. Such comparisons are misplaced, but the image of subjecting primates or humans to toxic gases is devastating to the reputation of German carmakers. VW, BMW and Daimler know this, and that’s why they all rushed to condemn the tests.

Efforts to play down the impact of nitrogen oxide on human health are also detrimental, because they cast serious doubt on the reliability of studies sponsored by the car giants. Exhaust gases, whether from factory chimneys or car exhaust pipes, are estimated to lead to about 432,000 premature deaths annually in Europe, according to EU research. Around 72,000 of these are caused by nitrogen oxide.

Trying to disqualify such facts will haunt the car industry next month when a federal court hears a case about banning diesel cars from cities. An environmental group, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, wants the municipalities of Cologne and Stuttgart, the latter home to Daimler and Porsche, to lower nitrogen oxide levels, which have been in violation of EU limits for years. The cities and the states in which they are located have to prove that they can reduce emissions without a ban. The municipalities have greatly relied on studies and calculations funded or provided by German carmakers to make their case against a diesel blockade.

The Federal Administrative Court will decide on the matter on February 22, or shortly thereafter. With the damning gas experiments in mind, they will view the carmaker’s studies more critically than ever. Lower courts had already ruled that authorities should consider diesel bans as an option to reduce air pollution. If certain diesel cars – mostly older models – are effectively outlawed from urban areas, it could further erode demand for the technology, which is a main revenue source for BMW, VW, Daimler and supplier Bosch.

Although investors ignored the news on Monday – VW shares were actually the top gainer after an upbeat analyst report – Dieselgate has sounded the death knell of diesel. It’s a slow-motion crash that can’t be averted. The gas experiments have now added some sad momentum to diesel’s downfall.

Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, covering the car industry. To contact the author: kreijger@handelsblatt.com

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