Weekly Review

At the Wheel, in the Backseat, Or Roadkill?

Feinstaub Alarm in Stuttgart
Smog warning on the Autobahn near Stuttgart. Source: DPA

Germans are used to this, but it’s always good for a thrill when you have visitors: Get on a German Autobahn on a day with easy traffic and drive 130 miles per hour in the left lane — that’s the fast one, for you Brits out there. Wait about 10 seconds, then check your rear-view mirror. You will see one or more Porsches, Audis, BMWs or similar menaces tailgating you. They will also be signalling left — to mean “get out of the way, I’m passing” — and flashing their lights into your mirror. This is a good time to change lanes and give a tractable wave.

Germany is known for many things nowadays, but cars, especially fast ones, are up there. And that’s especially true in the south-west and south of the country. You can think of Stuttgart and Munich and their surrounding areas as extended Motowns. The former is the home of Daimler, Porsche, Bosch and many lesser-known links in the automotive manufacturing chain. The latter has BMW, and Audi is not far away.

So you know something’s up when Stuttgart and Munich, of all places, are contemplating banning diesel-powered cars. As it happens, that would take a whole lot of traffic off the roads, because German brands, starting in the 1990s, wagered on diesel as their technology of the future. At the time, that wasn’t self-evidently crazy. Diesel cars emit far less carbon dioxide than gasoline-powered vehicles, and Germans love trying to save the world from becoming a greenhouse.

Today, of course, the world knows better. Diesel cars emit other toxic fumes, including nitrogen oxide. And car makers couldn’t reduce these emissions as fast as they had hoped. German regulators, aware of the importance of car making for employment and the economy, deliberately stayed in the slower lanes. Even so, the biggest German car brand, VW, eventually started cheating outright, by fiddling software so that the cars spewed less pollution during tests than on the road. The rest is tragic history, as Gilbert Kreijger, our car expert, has explained in his gripping profile of VW. Now even Daimler is under investigation. According to new allegations, VW and Daimler may even have colluded since the 1990s to fix suppliers and emissions-control techniques in violation of anti-trust rules.

The case of Daimler is also interesting because it’s based in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg, an innovative and business-friendly state that is the first of Germany’s 16 federal regions to be governed by a premier of the Green party, Winfried Kretschmann. The Greens, remember, are the party of tree huggers and composters, although in Baden-Württemberg they have made a big effort to be pragmatic and cozy with business. So this new situation is awkward for Mr. Kretschmann and Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler. Mr. Zetsche has now offered to recall three million cars to make them cleaner, hoping to prevent a diesel ban. Mr. Kretschmann is hoping that will be enough to please the judge deciding the case, so the two — Mr. Kretschmann with his Chia Pet hair, Mr. Zetsche with his walrus mustache — can keep posing for harmonious pictures together.

Kretschmann trifft Autobauer
Chia Pet meets Walrus. Source: DPA

The bigger question is what Germany’s car industry will conclude from its diesel disasters. Following Daimler’s example, Audi has also announced recalls. German consumers have begun shunning diesel engines in recent months. Porsche is probably not alone in planning an exit from diesel altogether.

But the clock is ticking even for gasoline-powered cars. The future clearly belongs to electric cars, with hybrids the bridge. And here Germany cannot afford to get passed by companies like Tesla in the left lane. The reliance of the German car industry on diesel has thus turned into a “cluster risk” for the entire country, as Grischa Brower-Rabinowitsch, the companies editor of our German sister publication, argues; and even that challenge is only part of the even larger quest to reinvent mobility.

This larger vision begins with car-sharing today and culminates in self-driving cars tomorrow. For even in Germany, not everybody enjoys tailgating other drivers on the Autobahn; young people in cities increasingly prefer not to own a car at all, because there are so many more convenient ways to get around.

The coming revolution in mobility promises to be a great boon to mankind. Thanks to car sharing, fewer cars will be needed, freeing urban space for new uses: parking lots could become playgrounds and parks. Thanks to algorithms doing the driving, fewer people will be killed or maimed on the road. And thanks to new energy technology, less dirt will end up in our lungs and atmosphere. All this is great.

But for Germany, this revolution is also a test. Will its companies shape the future of mobility? Or will they be like the proverbial stable keepers a century ago, obsessed with breeding a “faster horse” even as Henry Ford was already inventing a new kind of ride? The mobility revolution will shape not only the way we humans live but also the way Germans earn a living. That’s why Handelsblatt Global will shift into a higher gear in covering it. On the subject of mobility, we’ll not only be in the left lane; we’ll be doing the tailgating.

 

Andreas Kluth is editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: kluth@handelsblatt.com

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