As part of a research program on the impact of exhaust emissions, three German automakers sponsored experiments that exposed humans and monkeys to diesel fumes, a project that the chairman of Volkswagen AG today called “totally incomprehensible.”
The revelation of the program conducted by the University of Aachen further tarnishes the reputation of VW, as well as rivals Daimler and BMW, at a time when they all have been accused of rigging diesel emissions tests. At least one vehicle used in the project was a VW Beetle that had been among those equipped with one of the company’s rigged diesel engines.
VW’s Hans Dieter Poetsch described the project as “totally incomprehensible” and called for it to be “investigated completely and without reservation.”
Meanwhile, a statement issued by Daimler said the company is “appalled by the extent of the studies and their implementation,” adding that “We condemn the experiments in the strongest terms.”
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The revelation of the study, first reported by the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper, comes as a black eye for German automakers who have been facing allegations of rigging various diesel powertrains to illegally pass emissions tests. Volkswagen alone has already agreed to pay fines and other settlement costs topping $30 billion after acknowledging it used “defeat devices” on its 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engines used in at least 11 million vehicles sold worldwide.
The experiments also raise the unwanted specter of medical experiments run on human subjects during the Nazi era, an image that Germany is particularly loathe to bring back up.
The study was sponsored by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, known as the EUGT. An initial report by the New York Times indicated the group had been testing the impact of breathing diesel fumes on monkeys. But the Stuttgart-based Zeitung revealed that research conducted at the University of Aachen also involved human volunteers.
One group of monkeys was exposed to exhaust fumes from a diesel-powered VW Beetle, one of the vehicles involved in the diesel-rigging scandal. Another group of monkeys was exposed to fumes from an older Ford pickup. The study was conducted in 2014, two years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uncovered VW’s use of a defeat device.
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The EUGT, which was partially sponsored by the German automakers, closed last year. It had said that despite the concerns about nitrogen oxides, a pollutant found in automotive exhaust, its study found no impact on its test subjects.
The latest scandal could create even more headaches as automakers – including the three German manufacturers – struggle to hold back growing opposition to the sale of diesel-powered vehicles. A number of European cities, including Paris, are considering outright bans on the technology, despite efforts to say diesels can meet the latest emissions standards with new control systems.
The German government, “has no understanding for such tests … that do not serve science but merely PR aims,” Ingo Strater, a spokesman for Transport Minister Christian Schmidt, told reporters in Berlin.
Strater said the minister wants an “immediate and detailed” explanation about why the tests were conducted and said a commissions set up to look into the VW emissions scandal will now probe the EUGT project.
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The tests are in “no ethical way justifiable and raise many critical questions about those who are behind the tests,” added Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, in a separate news conference in Berlin.