Early one morning in July 2021, businessman Radim Passer raced his 1,500-horsepower sports car on a German motorway (autobahn), hitting 417 km/hr. Although the German transport ministry criticised the stunt as dangerous, what Passer did was perfectly legal, and he faced no sanction.
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Germany is the only country in Europe to have no speed limits whatever on sections of its autobahn network. While famed for its prudence and moderation, Germany’s guilty secret is its love affair with speed, and its powerful motor industry lobby exerts a virtual stranglehold both on domestic politics and even across the EU.
This week, European Parliament president Roberta Metsola rebuked last-minute German attempts to block EU legislation phasing out all internal combustion engines in cars by 2035.
This legislation has already been passed by the parliament and that needed to be respected, Metsola said, adding the credibility of the EU was now at stake.
Transport accounts for one fifth of all emissions in the EU and the transition to electric vehicles is a vital element in the union’s roadmap towards net zero.
The International Energy Agency projects that production of all petrol and diesel engines for light vehicles has to end no later than 2035 if transport emissions are to fall in line with what the science demands.
German prowess in motor engineering is best captured in the industry motto “Vorsprung durch Technik" (Progress through Technology) yet ironically, the desperate attempt by some major manufacturers to cling to what is rapidly becoming obsolete technology threatens its own long-term survival, as well as helping to shred critical climate targets.
The fudge being pushed by German chancellor Olaf Scholz is the idea that what are called e-fuels could continue to be used instead of petrol and diesel, thus allowing internal combustion cars to continue in production indefinitely.
E-fuels are manufactured synthetically, but require enormous amounts of energy. Analysis published this week by the Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) found the average driver would end up paying €210 to fill their tank with e-fuels, some 50% more expensive than petrol today.
E-fuels are carbon-neutral but they do emit air pollutants, notably the toxic nitrogen dioxide.
“Ultimately e-fuels will be no more than a niche solution for Porsche drivers, but by undermining the clarity of the engine phase-out for the sake of an expensive and polluting fuel, Chancellor Scholtz is risking Europe’s green transition and the future of its car industry,” according to Alex Keynes of T&E.
Not all German car-manufacturers are hobbled by their own legacies. Audi’s chief executive Martin Duesmann said: “We have made a clear decision: we are phasing out the internal combustion engine in 2033 because the battery-electric vehicle is the most efficient method for individual mobility.” This stance is also backed by Volvo and Ford.
Having long dominated the international market for luxury cars, the German motor industry has been markedly slow to begin the transition to electric vehicle (EV) technology, allowing rival upstarts like the US brand Tesla to make large inroads into prestige car sales and grab the headlines as EV technology rapidly matures.
Despite the antics of its capricious CEO Elon Musk, Tesla’s market value is today greater than the vastly larger Toyota, General Motors and Ford companies combined. The smart investment money accepts the move to electric vehicles is now as inevitable as the transition from the horse-and-trap to the motor car was a century ago.
Companies who stubbornly fail to make the technological leap face being wiped out in the way Nokia, once the world’s largest mobile phone company, was obliterated in less than a decade when it failed to adapt to the arrival of smartphones.
Chinese manufacturers, meanwhile, are expected to bring about 80 new models of EVs to the market in the next year or two, spanning entry level to luxury models, while many European car-makers cling to their former glories.
What is particularly baffling about this German-led move to scupper the transition to EVs is that just last year, both Volkswagen and Mercedes publicly announced their support for the EU ban on combustion engine sales by 2035, while BMW had announced plans to have an all-electric line-up of cars by 2030.
In the early 2000s, the motor industry invested heavily in so-called ‘clean diesel’ technology, with companies spending billions on new engine systems that promised lower carbon emissions and less tailpipe pollution.
This proved technically impossible to achieve, so Volkswagen secretly installed electronic ‘cheat’ mechanisms into some of their cars that detected when they were being formally tested and changed the emissions settings so they would pass tough US Environment Protection Agency tests.
The scandal known as ‘Dieselgate’ cost Volkswagen billions in fines for criminal charges and included the recall of half a million cars. Several other manufacturers were subsequently found to be involved in similar cheating.
The upshot of Dieselgate was to confirm that no amount of techno-fixes could clean up dirty fossil fuels and the only path for the industry was to make the clean break and move to all-electric drivetrains.
Whether a spineless German coalition government, egged on by an industry determined not to learn its lesson succeeds in wrecking the EU’s climate ambition now hangs in the balance.
- John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator