Volkswagen, Dieselgate and the History of Animal Testing in the Auto Industry

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It is beyond ridiculous that this is a real story and not a satire. Volkswagen, which was famously in big trouble for rigging its diesel vehicles to pass emissions tests, is now in trouble over its diesels once again. This time, it’s because the automaker tested the danger of diesel fumes on monkeys.

This was part of an effort in 2014 to prove diesel fumes aren’t as nasty as everyone thinks. You can’t test on humans, so the study tested hapless monkeys instead.

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It’s a rather long chain that leads to these poor monkeys. The automaker commissioned the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) in what was a study they hoped would defend diesel.

The EUGT then turned to the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico, which then came up with the idea of testing diesel fumes by sticking monkeys inside airtight rooms where they were forced to breath the stuff. The study involved 10 monkeys forced to inhale diesel fumes from a Volkswagen Beetle.

If that wasn’t bad enough — and that is pretty bad — the Beetle in question had one of the defeat devices so any results from the study would have been flawed.

What did the study find? Who knows. The group never produced a final report, but here’s a guess: Breathing hydrocarbons probably isn’t good for you or monkeys.

This whole thing is coming to light through a lawsuit filed in the U.S. against Volkswagen. Now it’s all about figuring out who knew what and, unsurprisingly, no one knew anything about the monkeys as though the animals just wandered by the lab and decided to start sucking down diesel fumes.

The EUGT received its funding from Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, but the automakers are denying they knew anything about the monkeys.

They all condemn the use of animals in any kind of testing and are quick to state they do not do any kind of animal testing. Yeahhhhh, ok. See the end of this article for an idea of what auto manufacturers have done in terms of animal testing.

As for the EUGT, that organization was dissolved last year. It doesn’t sound like the automakers knew about the animal testing that happened as a result of the study, but they’re of course going to deny any knowledge of something so ridiculous.

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They might not have known exactly how the experiment was carried out, but somewhere along the way a decision was made to fund a group that was conducting testing on animals. With a lawsuit in progress, the details of who knew what are sure to be revealed in the coming months.

Since the beginning of concerns about safety and the environment, auto manufacturers have used animals, and in some cases, human beings as test subjects. A lot of this has to be viewed through the lens of time, but it’s no less disturbing:

Cadaver Testing

Michigan’s Wayne State University was the first entity to seriously look at how automotive crashes affected the human body. Anthropomorphic Test Devices (Crash Test Dummies, in other words) and the science of biomechanics were long in the future. The only way to understand the forces of a car crash on the human body was to load one inside and run the car into a wall.

Few in their right mind would’ve agreed to such an endeavor (More on that in a minute.) Scientists at Wayne State used the next best thing: human bodies without a pulse or any sense of danger.

Cadavers bequeathed to the university were subjected to testing that included being pushed down elevator shafts and hurtled toward fixed objects to learn more about the horrendous damage a crash could cause.

Cadaver testing was from the 1930s, though, right? No. In 1993, the German newspaper Bild revealed that Heidelberg University had been using cadavers in automotive crash testing since the 1970s to that day.

Approximately 200 human cadavers — including the bodies of children — had been used in those decades. The university suspended the use of pre-adolescent cadavers in 1989, but was still using adult cadavers at the time.

We’ve forgotten how big a controversy this was, but it caused such an outcry that it ended up in a joke at the German auto industry’s expense in an episode of The Simpsons.

Live Volunteer Testing

While not many people would sit unbelted in a car while it crashed into a telephone pole on purpose, several people did subject themselves to all kinds of trauma in the name of science.

The most famous was Col. John Paul Stapp, who strapped himself to a rocket sled that fired him to over 600 miles per hour in 1.4 seconds to understand how the massive forces of acceleration and deceleration affected the human body.

Captain Eli Beeding regularly subjected himself to this kind of 600mph acceleration along with Stapp. However, he also rode a sled backwards and was slammed to a stop from 35mph, experiencing an 85g load on his body:

Similarly, Wayne State professor Lawrence Patrick endured over 400 rides on a similar sled to understand the impact of rapid deceleration. He strapped himself into padded cars that were crashed into walls.

Patrick and his students endured all kinds of abuse: metal pendulums would swing and smash them in the chest.

They were hit in the face by pneumatic hammers. They had shattered glass shot at them to test early tempered glass safety. The testing provided valuable data, but none of the subjects could come close to the threshold where discomfort crossed over to truly life-threatening injury.

Animal Testing

Cadavers could provide some data, and so could live volunteers, but live animals quickly bore the brunt of automotive testing. “We saw chimpanzees riding rocket sleds, a bear on an impact swing…We observed a pig, anesthetized and placed in a sitting position on the swing in the harness, crashed into a deep-dish steering wheel at about 10 mph,” wrote Mary Roach of the Eighth Stapp Car Crash and Field Demonstration Conference.

That conference was held in the 1950s, but animal testing was rampant for decades afterward. In an article in the New York Times in 1991, approximately 19,000 dogs, rabbits, pigs, ferrets, rats and mice had been killed in just a decade of automotive testing by General Motors alone. Ford and Chrysler didn’t participate in the actual testing of live animals, but they both had access to the data from this type of testing.

Most relevant to the recent news regarding Volkswagen’s testing, General Motors specifically used mice and rats to test the harmful effects of automotive emissions.

At the time, University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute director, Patricia F. Waller, said computer tests could not completely replace other types of research. “Even with a computer,” she said, “it’s very difficult to simulate a human body completely, to make everything respond the way the human body responds.”

Today, auto manufacturers claim to not subject animals to emissions or safety testing, but as the Volkswagen news confirms, it may be just because those tests are farmed out to other agencies.

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Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin