Germany continues to be the only country that does not have a general speed limit on its freeways, the famous ‘Autobahn’. For now. My prediction is that this will change within three months.
Berlin, October 12th, 2021 (The Berlin Spectator) — Climate protection is nice, unless you want to test your 911’s kickdown. The acceleration its 500 horsepower engine develops presses you into the seat, with g-forces comparable to those experienced by Concorde passengers before that bird was grounded for good.
All of those windmills erected alongside the Autobahn, the cows on the pastures and the rye fields race by. And no, the object you see in the rear mirror is not closer than it appears. Not in this case, because you are driving the 911, while the individual you just overtook at 250 km/h (155 mph) is sitting in a bloody Toyota Corolla.
He is ordinary, you are a hotshot. He is a snail, you the Roadrunner, or the ‘accelerati incredibilus’. He will arrive in Hamburg in about 6 hours from now, you will do it 3. He will be overtaken by everyone, you will not be passed by anyone. He drives a Corolla? Seriously? What a boring contemporary.
Maybe. Except his Corolla will consume 4.5 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers (62 miles), while your Porsche is far more thirsty. It sucks propellant out of that gas tank like a damned jet fighter. The kickdown and your speed make you use at least 30 liters per 100 km, meaning you will need a refill in an hour, once you killed the first 250 kilometers on the way to Hamburg.
The Right Stretch
Not only does that Toyota driver, the one you just called an imbecile, spend far less on gasoline, he won’t even need any refill before he reaches his destination. Also there is something called the environment. It will thank the “bearded eco jerk”, but it won’t thank you.
For now, Germany’s Autobahn is a racetrack, at least the parts without speed limit. Racers also need space. Nobody expects to accelerate his or her Audi RS8 or BMW 760i to 150 mph during rush hour, or on the first summer vacation day. It has to be the right stretch at the right time.
Before Corona hit, mostly male American and Asian tourists came to Germany in order to race. It is called Autobahn tourism. So, they rented an M5 to go Porsche-hunting. Of course, they taped the entire thing and uploaded it to Youtube. You want to hit the Autobahn and race? Do it right now, because it will be over soon.
The European Union has set climate protection goals every member state needs to reach, and the Germans intend to try hard to do so. For that reason, the Berlin government cooperates with a commission called ‘National Platform for the Future of Mobility’. Shortly before Corona hit, it came up with three recommendations:
- Introduce a mandatory electric vehicle quota
- Raise the gasoline and Diesel taxes even more
- Impose a speed limit on the Autobahn
While the second suggestion is part of the Berlin government’s so-called ‘climate package’, Autobahn speed limits are a sensitive subject in Germany. The discussion is definitely not new. When the Saudis pulled the oil plug in 1973, the Bonn government discussed the matter. Back then, the Green movement, which later developed into the Green party, demanded a 100 km/h (62 mph) limit.
The Auto Industry
Most German drivers were furious. The General German Automobile Association (ADAC) demanded “unlimited speed driving for free citizens”. On top of it all, the auto industry rejected any speed limit, saying it needed to be able to show the world what their products on four wheels could do.
Why would anyone give a damn what the German auto industry says? Well, because 7.7 percent of the country’s economic output is connected to it, and more than 800,000 people in Germany work for car manufacturers or their suppliers. Germany will do anything, including just swallowing the Diesel scandal, to make the auto industry happy.
But things are changing, including the climate. Today, climate change is not just something ‘muesli-munching environmentalists’ talk about, but everyone does. Even the conservatives discovered ecology years ago and they want to appear greener than the Greens.
Not Much Headway
The commission which did research and delivered conclusions believes that, in combination with additional measures in areas other than traffic, the three steps mentioned might help slash the greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, if they are being implemented by 2023.
In Berlin, the government is afraid it might have to pay huge fines to the European Union if the pollution in Germany does not decrease drastically. Since 1990, not too much headway has been made. Therefore Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government coalition did use some of the commission’s suggestions for the ‘climate package’.
Like in most E.U. countries, a 130 km/h limit (81 mph) will most likely be imposed on racers rather soon. Only the country with the worst roads, the oldest cars, the worst drivers and one of the highest traffic-related death rate in all of the E.U., Bulgaria, has a 140 km/h speed limit on its crumbling freeways. Apart from Germany, there is no other country without a general speed limit.
In spite of it all, Germany’s Minister of Transport, Andreas Scheuer, has rejected the commission’s ideas. “Demands which cause annoyance and burden while endangering our prosperity will not become reality”, he told the ‘Bild’ tabloid in 2019. “I reject them.”.
His ally was the Berlin Bundestag, which rejected another attempt by The Greens to get an Autobahn speed limit last year. But those who insist on it are becoming stronger. Even the powerful ADAC threw its rejection of an Autobahn speed limit over the guardrail. Sebastian Vettel, a German Formula 1 racer, recently stated he was in favor of it.
I predict there will be a speed limit by January of 2022. In Berlin, the SPD, the FDP and the Greens are holding preliminary talks about forming a government coalition. Each of them will enforce their central demands. Since the Greens have insisted on a speed limit for decades, and the SPD agrees, it will likely happen. In return, the FDP will probably have its way in regard to the fiscal policy.
There are many good arguments for a general speed limit, including safety, an improved traffic flow, a less stressful driving experience on the Autobahn, and — above all — the environment. Besides, the age of electric mobility has begun. Racing decreases the range of electric vehicles substantially. This is another reason why the race is over.
Update October 15th, 2021, 2:38 p.m.: After yet another round of preliminary coalition talks in Berlin, Robert Habeck, one of two Green co-chairs, said his party had not been able to force through their demand of a general speed limit. This means our prediction might be wrong. We will know within a few weeks.
Note: An earlier version of this opinion piece was published in 2019 (‘Germany’s Autobahn: The Race is Over’).
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