German elections could for the first time impose a speed limit on the sacred highway

Not so long ago, the idea that the Germans could vote the Green eco-hawks in government would have been enough to blacken the country’s powerful auto rulers with fear.

Yet growing consumer awareness of climate change, changing investor preferences for clean technologies and Europe’s ambitious carbon emissions targets by 2030 have prompted Volkswagen Group, [hotlink]Daimler,[/hotlink] and BMW to embrace sustainability to survive.

There is, however, a red line they draw in the sand: whoever inherits the country from Angela Merkel must not question the sanctity of the all-powerful Autobahn.

Most current polls show that there is no realistic path to a stable government after the September 26 general election without the participation of the Greens. What worries the industry is not that per se, however, but the fact that the Greens could eventually succeed in instituting a long-standing party proposal: a blanket speed limit that would end the era. people driving as fast as their cars can drive them.

For automakers, the serious ramifications of this change could radiate far beyond the nation’s borders.

“Wherever you come from in the world, when you think of Germany, you think of ‘highway’,” said Ola Källenius, the Swedish-born boss of Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, last week at the Munich auto show. “Because consumers think German cars need to be better built to withstand high speeds, it psychologically becomes a seal of approval. Why would an exporting country ever want to give up on this in such a frivolous way? “

The highway has become a beloved symbol of progress in post-war West Germany, although it remains heavily tainted by its associations with the Nazi war effort. Along with the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, it represented the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that rebuilt the land from rubble.

When the first oil crisis in the Middle East sparked the very first movement to limit speeds, the German motorists club ADAC rallied opposition to the cause with the slogan “Free roads for free citizens”. And Kraftwerk’s 1974 album, which put electronic music on the map, borrowed its inspiration and even its name from the highway. In short, the highway is deeply rooted in the domestic psyche.

“This is really a German-made USP,” agreed Oliver Hoffmann, head of technical development at Audi, using an acronym Marketing 101 for the unique selling point – a competitive differentiator. Echoing opposition from his colleagues in industry, he also opposed a ban, calling the issue an interference with personal freedom.

Talk to Fortune, The chief engineer of the premium brand believes that people won’t suffer from lead foot syndrome in the future anyway, otherwise they will drain their battery too quickly.

“I am convinced that the driving behavior will change with the switch to electric vehicles, and the whole problem will resolve itself as less people will then want to drive at such absolute top speeds,” he said.

In other words, if the automakers aren’t already doing it for them. When Volkswagen launched the base ID.4 electric crossover, Audi’s sister brand chose to limit it to a maximum of 160 km / h (99 mph) in order to maintain range. The sportier GTX version with two engines peaks at just 180 km / h, which is pretty meager for a car starting at € 50,000.

More efficient CO2 price

So why are the Greens pushing so hard to get rid of what is often called one of Germany’s most recognizable cultural icons?

After all, the Autobahn already offers flexible and targeted speed limits, an approach favored by the influential domestic auto industry. About 30% of the infrastructure has some form of temporary or permanent speed limit, for example, when congestion and road and weather conditions dictate.

“There is no faster or more affordable instrument to improve safety and protect the climate than a 130 km / h speed limit on the highway,” Green MP Stefan Gelbhaar wrote in comments. To Fortune. Ideally, not a single penny would need to be spent on new road signs.

Gelbhaar, the Greens’ traffic policy spokesperson, compared those who cling to arguments like personal freedom to drive recklessly fast to Luddits who have fond memories of rolling up VHS tapes while others stream videos to their smartphones.

Yet the data is so inconclusive that the speed limit debate rages on.

A study published by the German Federal Environment Agency last year found that CO2 emissions from transportation on national roads would be reduced by 4.9% or 1.9 million metric tonnes if the Gelbhaar requirements were instituted. It’s a tiny fraction of what a simple lignite-fired power station in the country can transmit alone.

Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research argues that there are much more effective methods. The main one is to institute an increasing carbon price for CO2 emissions, of which a first floor was established in January with 25 € per tonne.

“Much more important than the heated discussion about speed on the highway is the speed of the rise in the price of CO2,” wrote the institute’s director and economist at Fortune, citing the influence of the latter on all sectors of the economy, including transport. “There are arguments for and against a speed limit, but whether you choose to institute one or not, it is clear that it matters less than a price for CO2.

Motorists divided

If it does not significantly reduce emissions, perhaps it can save more lives.

To raise awareness, Volvo, the Swedish car brand that prides itself on a reputation for safety, voluntarily introduced a top speed of 180 km / h for its new cars last year to send “a strong signal about the dangers of speed”. (This elicited some puzzling reactions from German auto managers at the time.)

Taking as many precautions as possible for myself and others, this reporter tested the limits of the freeway. Choosing a legal portion of the four-lane A9 motorway on a light Sunday morning, I briefly accelerated a brand new German sports car to a speed of 300 kilometers per hour. It turned out to be a lesson in the theory of relativity: at this breakneck pace, other cars passing by on the road looked like they were parked at a full stop. Even if the vehicle could handle it, it’s the kind of thing you only try once.

Yet the idea that higher speeds equal more crashes is not borne out by the facts, argues ADAC. Comparisons between Germany and neighboring countries like Belgium and France, or with the United States, have not offered clear evidence that the highway poses a greater danger, according to the motor club.

Perhaps this is somewhat counterintuitive, it may in fact be the safest place for road users in Germany: only 1.5 deaths occur for every billion kilometers traveled on the road. highway, against 4.7 for example on federal highways, where a maximum speed limit of 100 km / h will not be. t help you if you can still be struck by oncoming traffic in a blind curve.

Surprisingly, the ADAC stops before an explicit political recommendation on the issue, because its own members are now themselves divided into two. A poll this year found that half were in favor of a general speed limit versus 45% who were against it; perhaps more importantly, supporters have grown year on year since 2014, when they numbered just over a third.

This kind of groundswell suggests that it is only a matter of time before the Greens have clear national support for their policy.

Axel Schmidt, Head of Global Automotive Practice at the Consulting Firm Accent, however, do not think the industry has anything to worry about. The thesis that slower motorway speeds will lead to lower demand for high-performance vehicles does not hold, he says, as sales of German premium cars remain strong in many markets where they are already doing so. .

“There is no legitimate reason why Germany remains the only country in Europe that does not have a speed limit,” he said.

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