Image: AP

German automakers have been fighting to keep diesel around for years, even funding an experiment in 2014 that pumped diesel exhaust into the lungs of 10 cartoon-watching monkeys, New York Times reports.

It may sound like a joke at first, but it’s dead serious. According to court records and government documents reviewed by The New York Times (we haven’t seen those documents ourselves yet), a now-defunct group funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW called “European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector” (whose executive director used to work for VW) hired scientists to conduct research that portrays diesel engines in a positive light.

According to the New York Times, the automakers’ goal with these studies was to “influence political debate and preserve tax privileges for diesel fuel.”

Among the research efforts, The Times writes, was one conducted in Albuquerque in 2014, which involved pumping exhaust into the lungs of monkeys in order to challenge a 2012 World Health Organization division’s assertion that diesel exhaust is a carcinogen.

The Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute was chosen to run experiments comparing a newer VW Beetle’s exhaust gases with those coming from a 1999 Ford diesel pickup using “10 cynomolgus macaque monkeys.” The New York Times describes the experiments in detailing, writing:

Volkswagen took a lead role in the study. Company engineers supervised the installation of a treadmill that would allow the vehicles to run on rollers while equipment sucked exhaust from the tailpipes.

The gas was then diluted and fed into chambers containing the monkeys. To keep the animals calm during the four hours they breathed fumes, lab workers set up a television showing cartoons.

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The story goes on mentioning cartoons, saying:

“They like to watch cartoons,” Jake McDonald, the Lovelace scientist who oversaw the experiments, said in a sworn deposition taken last year as part of a lawsuit by Volkswagen diesel owners seeking damages beyond those provided for in a class action settlement.

Apparently the researchers had difficulty writing up the full study. The executive director of the research group lamented the work’s numerous flaws in a 2016 email, and Lovelace scientist McDonald claims discussion of finishing the paper continued into 2017. That is odd, considering the fact that the data was invalid due to the cheating VW Beetle involved (VW was exposed for cheating in the fall of 2015). Why anyone would consider continuing with that study seems strange, with The New York Times writing:

A lawyer for Volkswagen, Michael Steinberg, implied during cross-examination that Dr. McDonald had pushed to publish the results so that the institute could collect $71,000 owed under the contract.

Dr. McDonald disputed that assertion. “The decision to continue,” he said in an emailed statement, “was the choice of the client.”

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It’s worth mentioning that McDonald claims he only recently realized that the VW used in the test contained illegal emissions software, which reduced NOx output in lab testing, but spewed unacceptable levels of NOx in normal driving conditions.

The story mentions responses from all three automakers, saying:

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.

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So the study apparently was never published, and of course, monkeys get used all the time as test subjects (we even send them to space). But damn this whole thing is still freaking weird—not just the monkeys, but the fact that discussion of publishing this seemed to have lasted so long after the VW diesel scandal, despite a cheating vehicle been used in the study, and thus invalidating it.