In cars we trusted

Germany IAA Auto Show
Germans need to get used to the idea that they can't have everything when it comes to cars. Source: Picture Alliance

When the International Motor Show begins in Frankfurt this week, much will be the same as usual. German automakers will promote their products: big, powerful, comfy cars. But they will also tout their future viability by unveiling elegant electric cars suitable for everyday use. There’s just one problem: Carmakers cannot deliver on those promises today.

We’ve seen this before: Car companies are good at making their money with one product, while presenting another to sell the illusion of change. This is a simple, convenient contradiction that consumers, industry and policymakers have gladly accepted in the auto sector – until now, that is.

The industry is truly on the brink of radical change, and the consequences are taking shape. While consumers in Frankfurt marvel at the features of the latest SUVs, German cities are thinking of banning the diesel engines used in those vehicles. And while Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW present their electric cars for the next decade, challenger Tesla is already mass-producing its own models.

We are ignoring the fact that more mass means greater energy consumption.

In the federal election campaign, politicians are either calling for the end of the combustion engine, or for the protection of jobs – and sometimes, against their better judgement, both. Berlin also lacks a plan for emerging from the mess wrought by years of self-deception, which centers around the conviction that lawmakers must always do right by the industry and its customers – and should not intervene, even when things are clearly out of control.

This self-deception begins with consumers. In Germany, we value organic products and have welcomed the phase-out of nuclear power, and yet we are constantly buying bigger cars. The latest incarnation of the VW Golf, conceived as a smart, economical vehicle during the oil crisis, weighs almost 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) more than its predecessor. Air-conditioning, airbags and the simple desire for more space have driven up the vehicle’s weight. What was once a fuel-efficient compact car became a sport utility vehicle – with the corresponding fuel consumption levels.

The fact that you can barely park such a pumped-up vehicle in an underground parking lot is more than an ironic footnote. The car market has literally lost its sense of proportion. We are ignoring the fact that more mass means greater energy consumption. We have eased our conscience by believing the fairy tale of declining fuel consumption and cleaner diesel.

We shouldn’t blame the industry for accommodating our needs. CEOs have an obligation to their shareholders, and they want profitability. But even the industry’s top executives should have seen that this was a dead-end path. In 2009, the European Commission established binding fuel efficiency targets for the year 2020. Since then, it has been clear that, in three years, every new car will be allowed to consume no more than 4 liters of gasoline or 3.5 liters of diesel per 100 kilometers driven (about 65 mpg).

Similar strict standards apply to nitric oxide emissions. But instead of adjusting to these standards, carmakers chose to invest in the next generation of SUVs. The industry flagrantly disregarded the fact that it could hardly comply with fuel efficiency requirements and emissions limits with this approach. Instead, it became surprisingly adept at figuring out how to circumvent these requirements in vehicle testing stations.

The industry simply has no incentive to develop alternative drives.

And the government? It was only too willing to ignore the chumminess between consumers and manufacturers by looking the other way. Instead of implementing decisions made in Brussels (which were made with German input), Germany consistently suspended its supervision of the auto industry.

Until a few months ago, no government agency had made a serious attempt to verify the data presented by the industry. This is a result of a widespread self-deception that the most effective way to protect key industries is to regulate them as little as possible. But it is precisely this attitude that is now jeopardizing the competitiveness of the auto industry and possible the German economy.

Because we failed to sufficiently monitor diesel vehicles, they could now be banned from cities. This could spell the end of the diesel engine, which, when properly filtered, does provide environmental benefits. The industry simply has no incentive to develop alternative drives. As a result, Germany now lacks battery technology, charging stations and competitive electric cars. By seeking to do everything right through omission, lawmakers are now confronted with a hopeless mess.

It’s not easy to give up self-deception. Germany’s next government will have to abandon the idea of always having to please carmakers and consumers. Even automakers will have to accept the idea of government intervening in their business more than it has in the past.

And we as consumers must recognize that excess when it comes to individual mobility is a luxury we cannot afford in the long run.


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