All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Germans, cars, and the climate

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Three black Porsches in Eppendorf

Three black Porsches in Eppendorf

Meet Tatjana. She is an event planner for Porsche. Porsche owners, top sales staff, and assorted folks get invited to special events that Tatjana organises. How special? How about “spend a week in northern Finland in February learning to handle a Porsche on ice”, or “drive the new models through the Dalmatian Alps”. Tatjana looks after the logistics, and participates in the events herself (which include Michelin rated restaurants and five stars hotels). And she gets to drive cars on company time: she has to know her product. (She also has to drive the competition, for the same reason; she has test-driven Corvettes, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes…she likes only the latter two, and she still prefers Porsche). Some would call this a dream job.

Or meet Sören. Nineteen years of age, he has just been accepted at Porsche for a dual studium in mechatronics. This was the result of a grueling competition; students get to divide their time between studying at the university (Stuttgart, in this case) and working for their employer (Porsche, in this case). The successful students get a salary and support during their studies, in exchange of which they commit to work for their employer after graduation for a minimum of two years. Dual studium is a particular German system: it’s a way for employers to pre-select promising future employees, and a company like Porsche likes to pick the cream of the best students.

Colour coordinated motorbike and porsche

Colour coordinated motorbike and porsche

I asked Sören why Porsche, and what he thought of the long-term future of the car industry. He has no worries, he said; he expect there will always be cars, even if they become electric or something else. He pointed out that he’ll be working for Porsche Engineering, an entity distinct from the car maker. He said he’ll learn problem-solving skills that he can use anywhere – but what he really wants to do is design Porsches.

I mention these two just to show how cars are imbedded in German society. It’s all types of cars; I just happened to meet folks connected with Porsche. Here we have two young, smart and talented people who love cars and see their future in the car industry. An outsider like me thinks of Germany as an environmental leader; how does that square with such a strong car culture?

Cars are bad, environmentalists agree: air pollution, climate change, oil spills, urban sprawl, habitat fragmentation, all that is tied to cars. But as Tatjana and Sören would not doubt agree, it is futile to wish away car culture. Cars are an integral part of German culture, maybe even more so than in North America: Germans drive cars, but they also design cars, produce them, and export them, more than anyone else. This has resulted in Germany having the world’s largest auto manufacturer (VW) and many prestige brands such as Porsche or Daimler Benz.

A little mercedes by the Elbe

A little mercedes by the Elbe

Germany relies on the car industry for jobs and exports, but it has also pledged to reduce greenhouse gases. Indeed, between 1990 and 2014, emissions fell by 24 percent in the energy sector, 34 percent in the industrial and manufacturing sector, 33 percent in the residential sector…but only by 0.2 percent in the transportation sector. As blogger Opseth pointed out, “Norway sold about 2.5 times more EV [electric vehicles] than Germany in the first 10 months of 2015. Norway has a population of about 6% of Germany!”

Germany is doing so well cutting emissions from other sectors, I suppose it could be excused for having a blind spot when it comes to cars. But I think big changes are in the works in the automobile industry, and it would be wise not to underestimate Germany’s role in the upcoming changes.

It’s too easy to be defeatist, or smug, in the light of the Volkswagen emissions scandal (the “dieselgate”). After all, if the scandal is a bit of an humiliation for VW, it is a real black eye for regulators, who turned a blind eye to what was going on. In fact, the scandal may well be what spurs real changes in the industry – and the government’s approach to it. Michiel Lanzegaal reported for Cleantechnica:

Dieselgate seems to have woken up at least one giant. Volkswagen seems to have found a new CEO who knows what to do. Within weeks after assuming the position as CEO, Matthias Müller accelerated the Volkswagen electrification program. The Volkswagen Phaeton will go full electric and Volkswagen will develop a completely new electric platforms. Both Audi and Porsche will introduce long range luxury cars with fast charging capabilities in 2018–2019.

Or as Craig Morris, in Energy Transition, writes:

The VW scandal is a window of opportunity to embarrass the German government into real support for progress in the transport sector – and German car makers into true cleantech innovation. Until recently, Merkel took strict EU car regulations to be a threat. The lesson now is clear: save German car makers by making them leaders in clean technology!

Indeed, Germany announced its intention to increase electric vehicle production from less than 2,000 units currently to 1 million units by 2020 and 5 million units by 2030.

The federal government’s target is to make Germany the leading market for electric mobility,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement. “Power for electrically driven vehicles can be generated from a number of primary energy sources, thus helping to promote independence from oil imports and fluctuating petrol prices.”

This little i3 seems to live near our place

This little i3 seems to live near our place

But is that producing results? Well, the car makers didn’t wait for marching orders from the government. The major car makers have all created electric supercars in response to the threat of Tesla. Car geeks may want to click on these links to see reports about the Audi Q6 all-electric SUV, BMW’s i5 (or Aston Martin BEV Rapide, owned by BMW), Mercedes’ F015, or Porsche’s Mission E (0 to 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds, supercar indeed).

But it’s not just supercars. Mercedes has announced a line of electric mid-sized B class, and of course has been selling electric Smarts for awhile; VW has announced that it will resurrect its iconic camper van as an electric model; and BMW has been quite successful with its i3.

In fact, BMW may be the company to watch: its i3 production line is setting new standards for green, energy efficient manufacturing, and the company has announced its intention to have an all-electric line-up, including popular models such as the Mini.

...and the charger nearby.

…and the charger nearby.

So the technology and the innovation are there for an electric car revolution made-in-Germany. What has been missing are the incentives: there are few subsidies or tax incentives, nor has there been any push to make electric chargers common place. Once that changes…indeed, last October energy expert Ulla Pettersson stated to the trade magazine Power Engineering that

Widespread rollout of electric vehicles will occur in Europe, but the speed of implementation is dependent on the currently unstable oil price. If the price is low, then people won’t invest in electric vehicles because it’s not the cheapest option. However, I predict that in five years’ time, approximately 20 per cent of small private cars will be electric.

It may be unwise, then, to dismiss German car makers as non-players, or worse, in the push to decarbonize the economy. Change does happen quickly. It may be worth remembering that, barely more than a decade ago, Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn said that electric cars were mere toys with a limited future, and that the company had little interest in developing one. But it did: Nissan’s Leaf is now the most popular electric car on the market. It may be a bit premature to give up on German car makers…


Written by enviropaul

December 23, 2015 at 11:42 am

One Response

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  1. […] is Duales Studium, (literally double learning, it is often translated as co-op education there). I mentioned this system in a previous post; time for some details, because it is a really interesting […]

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