A rusting love affair: Germans and their cars
Germany, Europe’s automotive stronghold: in the late 19th century, Carl Benz and Rudolf Diesel invented the petrol and diesel engines. German carmakers Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Audi are today among the world’s leading brands. But their positive image is starting to rust. What’s going on in the birthplace of the automobile?
For many Germans, a car is much more than just a means of transport. Germans have always had a close relationship with their vehicles – many even give them a name. Driving symbolises freedom. And a car brand is symbolic of identity – the chosen brand says something about individual personality. Most drivers choose to overlook the extent to which driving impacts the environment.
But there is also a counter movement. A growing number of Germans – in particular younger ones – are abandoning cars. As a status symbol the car has become outmoded, as a mode of transport it is no longer seen as contemporary. Moreover, criticism is growing about the high level of toxic emissions and the influence the German car lobby has on politicians and society.
1. The car as the transport of choice for Germans
With around 46 million cars registered for use on German roads, over two thirds of adults in Germany own a car. Each car covered around 14,000 kilometres on average in 2016, equivalent to 625.5 billion kilometres for the year in total.
Almost half of all Germans take their cars on holiday, with the figure rising to 76 per cent for holidays made within Germany. Most Germans also travel to work by car. 68 per cent of commuters used their car to get to work in 2016. Only 14 per cent used public transport, according to information from the Federal Statistical Office, with the remainder travelling by motorcycle, bicycle or on foot. The picture was slightly better in urban areas, where 31 per cent made use of the public transport network.
2. More cars mean more roads
Germany today has one of the most extensive highway networks in Europe. And yet its politicians continue to invest billions in roads and bridges: around 1,300 kilometres of new motorways were built from 2001 to 2015 at a cost of over EUR 15 billion. Over 1,000 kilometres of highway were widened to six lanes or more.
Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) is sharply critical of this policy: “Adding to the number of roads does not increase mobility, merely the volume of traffic.” BUND is therefore calling for the creation of alternatives to roads and implementation of smart logistical solutions.
3. Prosperity thanks to the car industry
When you ask people in Manila, Cairo or New York what they associate with Germany, the answer is usually “Volkswagen/VW”, “Mercedes” or “BMW”. So it is not surprising that German luxury cars have such a presence on the world market. Three quarters of German car production is exported, around 4.4 million vehicles in total. The key import countries in 2015 were the USA (15 per cent), United Kingdom (13 per cent) and People’s Republic of China (8 per cent).
Approximately 7.7 per cent of Germany’s total economic output depends directly or indirectly on car production. This is also reflected in the labour market: more than 750,000 people in Germany are employed by carmakers and supplier industries. That puts the sector ahead of mechanical engineering and the metal industry.
The German automotive industry in crisis
The dominance of the automotive sector remains today a central pillar of the German economy. But it may become a risk in the years ahead. Some German carmakers have suffered a setback to their reputation since it became known they manipulated emissions figures for diesel vehicles to make them appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. VW, for example, reported that demand for models from the Volkswagen Group in 2016 sank by 2.6 per cent on the US market compared with the previous year as a result of the diesel scandal.
In addition, Germany is struggling to keep pace with new technical developments such as electric drives and vehicle digitisation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “I can only hope that – with a view to the Asian market and China in particular […] – the German automotive industry does not fall behind .”
4. Unrestricted speed on German autobahns is the right of the free citizen
Germany is one of the few countries in the world not to impose a general speed limit. Moreover, it is perhaps the only country with roads constructed in such a way as to enable drivers to exploit the possibility to the full – other countries without a speed restriction are Nepal, Myanmar, Burundi, Bhutan, Afghanistan, North Korea, Haiti, Mauritania, Somalia and Lebanon. German motorways have a recommended speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour. However, many places impose speed restrictions along certain sections of road.
There have been regular calls for a general speed limit on German motorways. Supporters say high speeds pose a threat to road safety. In 2015, 13 per cent of all accidents involving personal injury were caused by excessive speed. Introduction of a speed limit would also benefit the climate. The Federal Environment Agency stated back in 2012: “Introduction of a general speed limit on motorways would make a more achievable, effective and cheaper contribution in the short term to reducing both CO2 emissions and fuel consumption.”
Over half of Germans spoke out in favour of a speed limit on motorways in mid-2017, 47 per cent were against. Only 38 per cent of men were in favour of a speed limit.
5. Stop and go: traffic jams on German roads
In reality, unrestricted speeds on German motorways are increasingly wishful thinking for drivers. If stuck in one of the country’s 700,000 annual traffic jams, they are more likely to be concerned about moving at all. With congestion on German roads getting worse each year, the Allgemeine Deutsche Automobilclub (ADAC) calculated there were 1.3 million kilometres of tailbacks in Germany in 2016. The worst of these occur at the start of school holidays, when a steady convoy of vehicles heads south and traffic jams on certain stretches of road build to over 20 kilometres.
6. Exhaust gases and noise: cars leave a poor environmental footprint
According to the Federal Environment Agency, the transport sector in the European Union consumes over one third of energy and is responsible for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to emissions of CO2 and other harmful greenhouse gases, traffic-related air pollutants such as particulates and NOx pose a major health hazard. Today’s cars impose much less of a burden on the environment than in the past, not least because they consume much less fuel. But such technological improvements are negated because there is also significantly more traffic today.
Since the diesel scandal of 2015, experts have been predicting the demise of the combustion engine. The future lies in more environmentally friendly solutions, such as electric drives, which also create a lot less noise. An even more far-reaching and seemingly inexorable development is the autonomous or driverless car. Before long, technology will take control of the wheel and revolutionise driving. According to one American study, just a few driverless cars on the roads would significantly reduce traffic jams and fuel consumption.
Electric drives and driverless vehicles: all over the world, the car of the future is proving an attractive investment. Who can say whether the successors to Carl Benz and Rudolf Diesel will also come from Germany?
What role do German cars have on the world market?