Monkey business no laughing matter

Three German car brands represented in NZ have been caught up in a nasty emissions experiment. What’s the impact here?


THE man who oversees Volkswagen distribution here says he can understand why Kiwis will be upset about the brand involving in a diesel emissions study that tested on monkeys and will take it on the chin if sales or brand allegiance is affected.

Tom Ruddenklau, who heads Volkswagen New Zealand – a leading light of European Motor Distributors, a private New Zealand company which has held rights to sell VW Group product here for many years – also says he is personally upset by the revelation.

“From my point of view, I’m really disappointed … as a privately-owned importer we are disappointed that this has happened.

“We can understand that people might get upset by this.”

VW Group, Daimler AG and BMW Group have all been pulled into the furore over the testing, which was commissioned by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), an independent institute financed by the three German car-makers and parts supplier Bosch.

The car makers have denied direct responsibility for the controversial 2014 experiment, which involved 10 cynomolgus macaque monkeys that squatted in airtight chambers while watching cartoons for entertainment and inhaling fumes from a diesel-powered late-model Volkswagen Beetle and a 1999 Ford pick-up.

The intention was to prove that latest-generation diesel cars are much cleaner than their predecessors and not harmful to health.

Ironically, Daimler AG, BMW Group and the research scientists involved were unaware that the Beetle was fitted with the very emissions defeat device that triggered the VW Dieselgate controversy.

Details about the test have come to light during an ongoing US litigation about VW’s device, which manipulated results by producing pollution levels lower in the laboratory than on the road.

German politicians have quickly condemned the experiment as “repugnant” and “despicable” and yesterday VW Group suspended an executive who acted as its chief lobbyist.

MotoringNZ sought comment from the brands’ New Zealand distributors, all Auckland-based, about the potential of local market backlash to the scandal.

They were asked if they had had received any feedback from the public and customers; how they might respond to that and if they considered the issue might become damaging to their brand’s image with New Zealanders.

BMW New Zealand and Mercedes Benz New Zealand did not provide local market-specific comment but instead restricted to statements that were generated by their respective head offices.

Ruddenklau, however, indicated he thought it a matter important enough to warrant his comment.

“It’s upsetting people, it’s upsetting the public. I can only apologise about has happened. It’s frustrating being a privately-owned importer with this stuff going on.

“Yeah, we’re getting some feedback from a social media perspective and I can understand why it is disappointing people.”

He said his operation knew it had to ride the storm, but he also intended to front up to customers.

“We can’t really explain it … but we have to be responsive and accessible.”

Did he fear sales or good will might be lost? “I hope not … but I understand if that it will disappoint some people.”

VW Group itself has apologised for its involvement in the incident and provided a statement that said it understood its social and corporate responsibility and took criticism of the study very seriously.

“We believe that the scientific methods used to conduct the study were wrong and that it would have been better not to undertake it at all,” Wolfsburg said.

“Volkswagen Group explicitly distances itself from all forms of animal cruelty. Animal testing is completely inconsistent with our corporate standards.

“We apologise for the inappropriate behaviour that occurred and for the poor judgement of individuals who were involved.”

The Daimler AG statement, provided by Jerry Stamoulis, manager of public relations and product communications for Mercedes Benz Australia-Pacific, heavily criticised the EUGT and its methods while revealing that the matter is subject an internal enquiry.

“The EUGT’s approach contradicts our values and ethical principles … we expressly distance ourselves from the studies and the EUGT … (and) are appalled by the nature and extent of the studies and their implementation,” the statement read.

“We condemn the experiments in the strongest terms.

“Even though Daimler did not have influence on the study’s design, we have launched a comprehensive investigation into the matter. We will fully investigate the facts and make sure that such things do not happen again.”

The Daimler board of management has suspended an employee who was on the EUGT board.

BMW Group New Zealand corporate communications manager Paul Sherley offered that BMW did not participate in the studies and distanced itself last week.

Munich is launching its own formal enquiry into the situation and will work with the relevant parties to come to a resolution.

“We have immediately initiated an internal investigateon to thoroughly clarify the work and background of the EUGT.

“For this purpose, we are in intensive contact with the research institutes involved, as well as other independent bodies, in order to facilitate a comprehensive and well-founded evaluation.”

Founded in 2007, the EUGT was disbanded on June 30, 2017, meaning the results of the monkey test were not yet available, leading to the diesel emissions study never being completed or published.

According to legal proceedings and government records, if the German trio proved that the fumes were not harmful – contrary to a 2012 World Health Organisation (WHO) finding that classified the emissions as a carcinogen – they would have helped retain European tax breaks for diesel fuel, which would have been in their business interests.

According to WHO, evidence continues to mount that exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a diesel emission, “can increase symptoms of bronchitis and asthma, as well as lead to respiratory infections and reduced lung function and growth”.

A report from the European Parliament last year found that approximately 72,000 people died prematurely in Europe in 2012 due to nitrogen dioxide pollution.

The Dieselgate saga began in September 2015 and has seen Volkswagen Group fined $NZ33 billion after pleading guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges in the US.

Even so, VW passenger vehicle sales in New Zealand improved last year.