Note: This article was published in the New York Times by Jack Ewing on January 25, 2018. Click here to read the full article at NY Times.
FRANKFURT — In 2014, as evidence mounted about the harmful effects of diesel exhaust on human health, scientists in an Albuquerque laboratory conducted an unusual experiment: Ten monkeys squatted in airtight chambers, watching cartoons for entertainment as they inhaled fumes from a diesel Volkswagen Beetle.
German automakers had financed the experiment in a bid to prove that diesel vehicles with the latest technology were cleaner than the smoky models of old. But the American scientists conducting the test were unaware of one critical fact: The Beetle provided by Volkswagen had been rigged to produce pollution levels that were far less harmful in the lab than they were on the road.
The results were being deliberately manipulated.
The Albuquerque monkey research, which has not been previously reported, is a new dimension in a global emissions scandal that has already forced Volkswagen to plead guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges in the United States and to pay more than $26 billion in fines.
The company admitted to installing software in vehicles that enabled them to cheat on emissions tests. But legal proceedings and government records show that Volkswagen and other European automakers were also engaged in a prolonged, well-financed effort to produce academic research that they hoped would influence political debate and preserve tax privileges for diesel fuel.
The details of the Albuquerque experiment have been disclosed in a lawsuit brought against Volkswagen in the United States, offering a rare window into the world of industry-backed academic research. The organization that commissioned the study, the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, received all of its funding from Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. It shut down last year amid controversy over its work.
The organization, known by its German initials E.U.G.T., did not do any research itself. Rather, it hired scientists to conduct studies that might defend the use of diesel. It sponsored research that challenged a 2012 decision by the World Health Organization to classify diesel exhaust as a carcinogen. It financed studies that cast doubt on whether banning older diesel vehicles from cities reduced pollution. It produced a skeptical assessment of data showing that diesel pollution far exceeded permitted levels in cities like Barcelona, Spain.
Industries like food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals have a long history of supporting research that advances their political agenda. But the automakers’ group consistently promoted the industry’s claim that diesel was environmentally friendly — a claim now undercut by the Volkswagen scandal.
Margaret Douglas, the chairwoman of a panel that advises the Scottish public health system on pollution issues, compared the automakers’ behavior to the tobacco industry. Just as the tobacco companies promoted nicotine addiction, Ms. Douglas said, the carmakers lobbied for tax breaks that made European drivers dependent on diesel.
“There are a lot of parallels between the industries in the way they try to downplay the harm and encourage people to become addicted,” Ms. Douglas said.
Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW said the research group did legitimate scientific work. “All of the research work commissioned with the E.U.G.T. was accompanied and reviewed by a research advisory committee consisting of scientists from renowned universities and research institutes,” Daimler said in a statement.
Daimler and BMW both said they were unaware that the Volkswagen used in the Albuquerque monkey tests had been set up to produce false data. Volkswagen said in a statement that the researchers had never managed to publish a complete study.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
Documents produced in legal proceedings show that in August 2016 Michael Spallek, the director of the automakers’ research group, emailed the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, the Albuquerque organization that conducted the tests with monkeys. “The E.U.G.T. point of view is that it’s time to try to finalize the report and to present or discuss the problems of the study in a scientific way ASAP,” Mr. Spallek wrote.