Anyone who assails the German auto industry with ridicule, malice and criticism can expect enthusiastic applause these days. Social networks are filled with ugly comments about Volkswagen, Daimler and other automakers. There is no question that car companies have become Germany’s bogeyman, and they only have themselves to blame.
In a country where the auto industry plays such an important role, companies shouldn’t be surprised by the confrontational attitudes of citizens and politicians after using illegal (or at least questionable) software, manipulating exhaust emissions and possibly engaging in unlawful collusion for decades.
Clearly the automakers themselves need to pay for the resulting damage – not only for the legal aspects of addressing the diesel scandal, which has already cost Volkswagen billions of euros, but for retrofitting diesel vehicles.
The industry is solely responsible for this retrofitting, regardless of how it is defined and structured at today’s diesel summit. Buyers of diesel vehicles rightfully expect their cars to comply with both legal requirements and the manufacturers’ specifications when it comes to emissions. That’s why it is in the fundamental interest of automakers that the retrofitting of older diesel vehicles eliminates all doubts and restores our lost confidence in combustion engines.
The companies have the funds for it: They earn billions year after year. The proposal by Horst Seehofer and Stephan Weil, the governors of Bavaria and Lower Saxony, to offer consumers an incentive for buying a new diesel vehicle, disguised as a “climate premium,” is regulatory nonsense. It’s up to the industry to put an end to the crisis of confidence.
So far, however, automakers have failed to demonstrate that older diesel cars can be retrofitted simply with a software update. A court in Stuttgart has expressed strong reservations, clearing the way for the possibility of banning diesel cars if retrofitting does not improve emissions.
Automakers need to clear away these doubts as quickly as possible or the market for diesel vehicles could collapse as even more people switch to alternatives. And because the range of electric car options in Germany is still small, consumers are increasingly ordering cars running on traditional gasoline with substantially worse environmental records than diesel vehicles.
This is a devastating development for the German government, which wants to continue reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the coming years. Under these circumstances, there is little point in waging ideological battles against diesel technology. Anyone calling for a specific phase-out date for internal combustion engines in Germany does not grasp the complexity of the task.
We can’t answer the question of what mobility will look like in the future with a gut decision.
Car manufacturing plays a critical economic role in Germany, unlike France and Great Britain, which plan to ban sales of fossil-fuel-powered vehicle by 2040. Millions of jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on the auto industry, which makes the sector, with its many Mittelstand suppliers, too big to fail. No politician can accept responsibility for a rash threat to the German auto industry.
This is why we can’t answer the question of what mobility will look like in the future with a gut decision. Instead, we need an intensive scientific debate over whether battery-driven electric motors are truly the best of all possible forms of propulsion. Fascinated by the success of Tesla, more and more German politicians and auto industry executives declare there is no alternative to electric cars.
But many questions remain unanswered: the impact of electric vehicles on CO2 emissions, the disposal of old batteries and the reliability of the power grid when millions of electric vehicles are charging at the same time.
Instead of prematurely setting the course for the battery age, the German government and the auto industry should invest significantly more money in the study of alternative propulsion technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota and Hyundai have already introduced models with hydrogen technology; Germany cannot fall behind in this technology.
Only when we know which propulsion technology is truly the trend of the future can we seriously discuss a target date for phasing out diesel. Until that time, lawmakers and the industry should do everything possible to avert further damage to the German automobile sector. The country needs it.
Sven Afhüppe is editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org