Throughout this article, I am going to a bit journalistically unfair to Volkswagen. I am not going to falsify any accounts or level any charges against them that can’t be corroborated, but I am going to conflate Volkswagen with the larger mechanism of corporate sociopathy without the context that they are by no means an outlier for behaving the way they do. They are simply the latest in a long line of corporate misbehaviors which has, at this point, very much ruined my day.
Let’s start with the monkeys.
Volkswagen, in addition to BMW and Daimler, was fiscally linked to studies performed by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transit Sector (EUGT) which forced monkeys to inhale diesel fumes from two vehicles. The EUGT has also performed a study which asked human test subjects to inhale nitrogen dioxide, a poison and irritant to the respiratory system, with their informed written consent.
After the news was made public that they had funded hazardous research on both humans and monkeys, Volkswagen apologized. The company claimed it had no knowledge of the nature of the research being conducted at EUGT and condemned it in the harshest terms.
The following statement was issued: “We apologize for the misconduct and the lack of judgment of individuals. We’re convinced the scientific methods chosen then were wrong. It would have been better to do without such a study in the first place.”
Why yes, Volkswagen, you would certainly be correct there, but let me clarify why.
The EUGT is a research and lobby group funded exclusively by German auto manufacturers. It was established as a joint venture between BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, and Bosch, and receives funding from no other sources. It seems very unlikely to me that all four companies involved in the operation of EUGT could have had no knowledge of the kind of research being undertaken there, much less shocked that there were different types of emissions tests being performed on live test subjects.
The fact that a few individuals are being cited as the source of the misconduct couldn’t be more absurd.
There is no independent researcher in the world, operating with freedom of funding and inquiry, who is curious about how well-known poisons and pollutants affect the respiratory systems of humans or monkeys. These are known factors. The whole reason for the furor surrounding these revelations is that this knowledge is so widespread that it defies logic and decency.
So why pursue these experiments – the results of which went unpublished by the way – in the knowledge that car emissions are indeed hazardous?
Because they are coming off of the largest scandal in the company’s history, which was centered around the falsification of emissions testing in Volkswagen automobiles. The company knowingly implanted software into the cars which caused engines to release less nitrogen dioxide in test scenarios than when on the road. The fallout from these charges cost VW somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 billion.
The study on the monkeys was comparing their reaction to emissions from a Volkswagen Beetle to an older model of truck. The study on human subjects involved consuming nitrogen dioxide from a bottle and describing the results. These studies were obvious attempts to try to downplay the adverse effect of emissions on respiratory health, as if somehow that would exonerate Volkswagen. As if the company could then go to the public and say, “Remember that thing we lied about? Well it turns out it’s not even THAT poisonous.”
And this is what really gets me. A company - after being found guilty of committing fraud and flouting the consumer standards for their product in multiple countries, after being ordered to pay huge reparations for said fraud, after suffering a blow which many thought would spell the end for them - decided that the best thing to do would be to quietly fund the gassing of people and monkeys to see if emissions were as bad as they are cracked up to be.
Last quarter that company posted a profit of $5 billion. Their CEO declared that they had sold a record-breaking 10.74 million vehicles in 2017, making them the largest purveyor of automobiles on the planet. The financial community is surprised not only that this recovery was possible, but that it happened a mere two years after the emissions scandal broke.
If you knew a person who lied to you about how much poisonous gas their artisanal table emitted and then you found out they were gassing neighborhood cats and students to see if the tables were really poisonous, would you still buy a table from that person? Would you want them to live in your neighborhood? Should they still be free to sell tables?
This is the central moral quandary of a corporatized world, at what point do companies who misbehave run out of second chances? They have, it must be said, paid a high price for their sins. What they have learned from that penalty is that there is no indiscretion which cannot be cured with money, and fortunately, the folks at Volkswagen are in no short supply of that.