Automaker Volkswagen’s head of external relations and sustainability has stepped aside from his duties after the recent controversy over experiments in which humans and monkeys were exposed to diesel exhaust.
“We are currently in the process of investigating the work of the EUGT, which was dissolved in 2017, and drawing all the necessary consequences. Mr. Steg has declared that he will assume full responsibility. I respect his decision,” said the CEO of Volkswagen, Matthias Müller.
Ms. Merkel, through her spokesman, was among the political leaders and auto industry executives who in recent days condemned the experiments at a lab in Albuquerque, in which monkeys were exposed to diesel exhaust.
The project was financed by German carmakers, who wanted to show that diesel cars were less of a threat to human health than groups such as the World Health Organization have claimed.
A separate project also financed by the carmakers subjected human volunteers in Germany to doses of nitrogen dioxide, one of diesel’s most noxious by-products.
Environmental groups and other critics of Volkswagen said the suspension of Mr. Steg, whose formal title at Volkswagen is head of external relations and sustainability, made him a sacrificial lamb meant to insulate the company’s top managers from consequences.
These critics drew parallels with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the company initially said that a small number of rogue engineers were responsible for installing software intended to dupe regulators. German prosecutors have since identified dozens of suspects.
“They are again playing the game where the subordinates were the culprits,” said Christian Strenger, a former member of a commission that wrote Germany’s rules on corporate governance. Mr. Strenger is among the people suing Volkswagen for violating its legal obligations to shareholders.
The experiments that preceded Mr. Steg’s suspension were conducted at a laboratory in Albuquerque for the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, known by its German initials, E.U.G.T.
The organisation was financed entirely by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. (Bosch, a major German auto parts supplier, had been a member but dropped out in 2013.)
In recent days, the three carmakers have repudiated the work of the group, even though all three were represented on the organisation’s five-person board of directors, and all three contributed money to the group.
Matthias Müller, Volkswagen’s chief executive, said in a statement Tuesday that the company is conducting a thorough investigation of the research “and will draw all the necessary consequences.”