Volkswagen paid to have monkeys inhale exhaust fumes to prove that its diesel emissions were harmless, according to a documentary currently available on Netflix. The automaker has just suspended one of its top executives.
The experiment was conducted as part of an unpublished 2014 test intended to compare Volkswagen’s then heralded “clean diesel” TDI emissions with those of an older heavy-duty diesel pickup truck. Alex Gibney’s Dirty Money series, which first aired on Netflix last Friday, described the test as initially intended to expose a person pedaling an exercise bike to diesel fumes. The researchers intended to “poke and prod that person later to determine what type of health effects they would see from this person being gassed,” said Michael Melkersen, a Virginia lawyer suing VW, in the documentary. Thomas Steg, VW’s head of external relations and sustainability, is taking “full responsibility” for the experiment and VW will be “drawing all the necessary consequences,” according to a statement attributed to VW Group CEO Matthias Müller.
The proposed human test subject was abandoned in favor of 10 monkeys, according to documentary filmmaker Gibney. They were placed in airtight chambers and shown cartoons as they breathed fumes from a 2013 VW Beetle TDI running on a dynamometer. The comparison vehicle was an older diesel Ford F-series truck. Volkswagen indirectly paid for the study, conducted by the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, under a since disbanded nonprofit organization known as the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT). The group paid about $730,000 for the study, according to Melkersen, which involved exposing the monkeys to the gases for up to four hours at a time and inspecting their lung tissues for damage. Daimler and BMW had also funded the group but have since denied any involvement in the experiment.
“The scientific methods used to conduct the study were wrong,” Volkswagen said in a statement printed in a New York Times article; its author, Jack Ewing, was featured in the documentary. “Animal testing is completely inconsistent with our corporate standards. We apologize for the inappropriate behavior that occurred and for the poor judgment of individuals who were involved.”
Müller has been quoted by several outlets, including the Reuters news service, as saying, “The methods used by EUGT in the United States were wrong, they were unethical and repulsive. I am sorry that Volkswagen was involved in the matter as one of the sponsors of EUGT.”
While animal testing is a controversial yet widespread practice in consumer-product safety research, another damning aspect of the revelations is that VW allegedly planed to use the study as part of its wider plan to manipulate emissions. The Beetle TDI was performing in the engine computer’s test-bench mode, according to the documentary, which was programmed so that the car would emit far less nitrogen oxide than it would while being operated normally on the road. The mode allowed the car to pass emissions regulations and is the cheat at the center of Volkswagen’s diesel-emissions scandal.
James Liang, a VW engineer who in December was handed a 40-month prison sentence for his involvement in the scandal, “personally delivered” the car to Lovelace and requested “real-time monitoring” of the test, claims attorney Melkersen. He also said that the Lovelace test firm was “used by Volkswagen as a pawn” since the research group did not realize that the automaker had intended to skew the results.
The test documents, while disclosed, have not been made public. VW, Daimler, and BMW have also been accused of forming anti-competitive agreements in developing diesel-emissions systems.