In Germany, highways must be closed to traffic to test so-called self-driving cars. But some U.S. states allow these autonomous vehicles in normal traffic. Audi became one of the first automakers to seek such approval in Nevada. Volkswagen and Mercedes have meanwhile done the same in California.
For German companies to hold a top spot in this nascent market, they have to be represented in the United States. Information-technology giants such as Google are using software and hardware to transform cars into smartphones on wheels. Adam Jonas from Morgan Stanley summarized the revolution in a recent report with a title that describes the end of his occupation: “The death of the car analyst.”
The move by the German car industry is necessary and an example for others. German companies must trust in their own strengths. They must no longer celebrate the “marriage in heaven,” as Chrysler and Daimler attempted with their merger that failed. German managers have learned that they don’t need to blindly copy the United States, but to use the country’s advantages.
And they’re doing that. Executives at Siemens for example, have chosen to become involved in fracking in the United States because the legal hurdles are too high in Germany.
Nonetheless, German mangers still tend to be fascinated – and driven – by technology. American executives, by contrast, are more inclined to set a goal and develop technology to reach it. They take the approach of trial and error, and failure is almost expected.
Also, Germans are overly concerned with what is prohibited, while Americans look to what is possible.
Germany doesn’t suffer from a fear of new technology, but from its implementation.
Take self-driving cars, for example. In California, for a long time, no legal regulation covered these. After collaborating with Google, the state government enacted a law in 2012 covering things such as insurance requirements and equipment standards that allowed drivers to take control of vehicles during emergencies.
Since then, companies in the United States have a right to test autonomous cars. In Germany, they must first prove that the vehicles are capable of driving without any accidents. That means every part must be adjusted until everything functions correctly.
It’s a vicious circle that Americans call “Catch 22,” after the famous novel by Joseph Heller. After all, no technology can function perfectly without test drives, which in turn are required to design perfectly functioning technology.
Audi, BMW and Mercedes have been at the forefront of autonomous car technology with the use of cameras, radar and sensors. Yet the Internet giant Google has stolen the headlines with its test trials.
Germany doesn’t suffer from a fear of new technology, but from its implementation. Everything must be right, every eventuality must be considered, every regulation must be observed.
But that is not so bad, since such scrutiny can also do a lot for the economy. Caution ensures sustainability.
American companies know and value that. The PC maker Dell, the consumer goods group Procter & Gamble and the automaker General Motors consider Germany essential: There are first-class researchers and clients who place higher requirements on technology and quality of products than other companies elsewhere. For these companies, its market is a yardstick of the world market. To quote Frank Sinatra: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
The American way and the German way – neither is wrong. They’re just different. The opportunity to use these differences has arrived in German executive offices after many decades of blind American-faith: The symbiosis is what secures the future.
To contact the author: Jahn@handelsblatt.com