The number of cars on the road in Germany has continued to increase, from 41 million in 2008 to 46 million today. 

The number of cars on the road in Germany has continued to increase, from 41 million in 2008 to 46 million today.  Sean Gallup / Getty Images

In Drive to Cut Emissions, Germany Confronts Its Car Culture

Despite its green image, Germany is being held back by its national love of the gasoline-powered car. To truly transition to renewable energy, experts say, Germans must start moving beyond private autos and embrace new digitally-run systems of shared mobility.

Germans like to think of themselves as the most environmentally friendly people on earth. They see their sophisticated recycling programs, their love of forests, and, most recently, the country’s drive to replace both nuclear and coal-fired power production with renewable sources — the so-called Energiewende, or “energy turn” — as evidence of their strong environmental consciousness, especially compared to top polluters like the United States and China.

But the green self-image of Europe’s largest economy and most populous country doesn’t square with another important aspect of Germany’s national identity: its longstanding love affair with fast, gas-guzzling automobiles produced by the country’s iconic carmakers — BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen. Now, with new studies showing that Germany may well miss its 2020 CO2 emissions-reduction targets, and with the nation’s automakers rocked by scandals over falsifying emissions data, Germans are beginning to question the sustainability of their automobile culture.

This debate is being joined at a time when the country’s once-highly regarded auto industry, which produced 5.75 million new cars in Germany in 2016 and an additional 11 million cars in factories all over the world, is going through its deepest crisis of public confidence in decades.

Plastering the landscape with wind turbines is an easy task compared to changing the way Germans move between places.

Germany has made major strides in deploying wind and solar power to generate electricity. But plastering the landscape with wind turbines is an easy task compared to changing the way Germans move between places. The greening of Germany’s transportation sector will be a decades-long project. One obvious solution is the electrification of the nation’s vehicle fleet. But that will lead to significantly reduced emissions only when the country’s electricity is generated by renewable sources, whereas today more than half of the country’s electricity comes from burning coal and natural gas.

In any case, because of automaker inertia and sluggish demand by consumers, Chancellor Angela Merkel had to scrap her government’s long-held goal of having 1 million electric cars on the streets by 2020. The total number today is a mere 37,000, and construction of a nationwide recharging system has only just begun. The German auto industry says it alone cannot significantly boost the number of electric vehicles on the roads without government assistance in realms such as charging infrastructure and improving battery performance.

“Only a common effort by industry and politicians will bring the share of electric vehicles in Europe up to the significant level of 15 to 25 percent by 2025,” Matthias Wissmann, president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), said in September. He added that the European Union is unlikely to meet its goal of reducing the CO2 output from its fleet of new cars by 30 percent by 2030.

Increasingly, German transportation experts, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists say the solution to greening the nation’s transportation sector needs to go beyond replacing gasoline-powered automobiles with electric ones. These advocates are calling for deeper changes, envisioning a future with a greatly diminished role for individually owned cars and the adoption of what is called “cooperative” or “coordinated” mobility. This would mean creating a new transport system that connects bicycles, buses, trains, and shared cars, all controlled by digital platforms that allow users to move from A to B in the fastest and cheapest way — but without their own car.

The move to coordinated mobility is only just beginning to get off the ground. But some powerful players — including Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s largest rail operator — are starting to experiment with this new vision, while nevertheless acknowledging that getting car owners out of their private vehicles is a daunting challenge.

A lack of bicycle infrastructure, such as bike lanes and storage racks, has hampered efforts to boost vehicle-less travel in Berlin (above) and other German cities.

A lack of bicycle infrastructure, such as bike lanes and storage racks, has hampered efforts to boost vehicle-less travel in Berlin (above) and other German cities. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

“So far, all opportunities for fundamental changes have been missed,” says Stephan Rammler, professor for transportation design at Braunschweig University and author of a recent best-selling book on future mobility. “What we need now is a future where instead of having 46 million cars that stand still for 23 hours a day, we have 5 to 10 million cars that operate 24/7.”

Adds Klaus Töpfer, a former conservative federal minister for the environment and long-time adviser to Chancellor Merkel, “I fear that the German car industry is endangering its very existence if it just sticks to its standard business model or simply relies on electric cars. What we need to think about is systemic change.”

Private cars were used for 80 percent of the 1.2 trillion kilometers Germans collectively traveled in 2015, according to data from the Federal Ministry of Transport. From 2008 to 2017, the total number of cars on Germany’s streets and roads increased from 41 million to 46 million. And following a trend from the U.S., the market share of sport utility and crossover vehicles — which burn more gasoline and produce more CO2 emissions than smaller cars — has shot up from close to zero in the mid-1990s to 22 percent today. 

Overall, the focus of innovation in the German car industry in recent years has not been on environmental performance, but on increasing the luxury feel of cars, their acceleration, and their design as SUVs. Despite its green rhetoric, the German automotive industry has never wavered in pursuing one overarching goal: To sell as many cars as possible in Germany, Europe, and the world. This business model is in strong conflict with national and international goals of making cities less congested and rapidly bringing down CO2 emissions.

“Is our determination to protect the planet strong enough to change our personal lifestyles?“ asks one expert.

“Germany is in love with the car just as much as the U.S.,” says Rammler. “The question now is whether our determination to protect the planet’s climate is strong enough to change our personal lifestyles and transform this whole sector of the economy.”

For more than a century, Germany has been a global auto industry leader. Today, the German car sector is one of the country’s largest employers, with 817,000 jobs depending directly on it. Millions of Germans treat their cars as the ultimate status symbol, and autobahns — where high-powered cars are allowed to speed at 150 miles per hour or more — have an almost religious status. “That’s why politicians were hesitant to do anything that upsets the industry so far,” says Alexander Jung, mobility researcher at the think tank, Agora Verkehrswende, or Transport Transformation.

The challenge is huge: “To reach our national goal for CO2 reduction for the transport sector, half of the people who now use their cars alone would have to switch to bicycles, public transport, or ride-sharing”, says Heinrich Strößenreuther, a Berlin-based consultant for mobility strategies.   

Germany’s transportation sector is the nation’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, producing 166 million tons of CO2 in 2016, or one-fifth the nation’s total CO2 emissions. A government memo leaked last month showed that despite the construction of thousands of wind turbines and solar power plants, CO2 emissions have been cut 27.6 percent below 1990 levels — well below the promised national target of 40 percent by 2020.

Maria Krautzberger, president of the German Environment Agency, said last March, “Without fundamental changes in our mobility system we will miss our targets for emissions reduction.

The revelation in 2015 that Volkswagen had manipulated software to switch on pollution controls on its diesel vehicles only during inspections, and not during normal travel, has blossomed into a major scandal involving almost all German producers. Earlier this month, a new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) showed that new cars in Europe emit about 42 percent more CO2 than producers claim in their customer information sheets. German producers aren’t singled out, but are certainly part of the problem.

So where does Germany go from here?

German carmakers vow to move to a more connected transportation system that will transition to EVs and make increasing use of digitization.

German carmakers say they are moving toward a more connected and efficient transportation system that will transition to electric vehicles and make increasing use of digitization. Digital technologies will enable cars to communicate with each other and regulate driving behavior according to the overall traffic situation. This will lead to “less congestion and stop-and-go traffic, and lower emissions of pollutants and of CO2,” according to the VDA’s Wissmann. 

Wissmann says that by 2020, the German automotive industry will spend 40 billion euros on research and development in electric mobility and up to 18 billion euros in digitization. While IT firms in the U.S. claim to be leaders in self-driving vehicles, German companies hold 52 percent of the world’s patents in this field, according to Wissmann.

But transportation experts say the ultimate solution is a transition away from the privately owned car to a world of “co-operative mobility.” At the opening of “Futurium,” a government-sponsored new cultural venue in Berlin dedicated to exploring the future, Rammler outlined a new vision for German mobility: a fully networked system that takes customers from A to B without the need for individually owned cars.

Creating such a networked mobility system is the mission of people like Maxim Nohroudi. Since 2010, Nohroudi and his business partner, Tom Kirschbaum, have built a company called “door2door,” which has grown to 100 employees. “We think that this whole model of buying your own car, servicing it, and having it stand around unused for most of the time will be completely outdated in a few years,” Nohroudi says.

Ride-sharing systems like the German company door2door's Allygator shuttle allow passengers to hail small public buses using their phones.

Ride-sharing systems like the German company door2door's Allygator shuttle allow passengers to hail small public buses using their phones. door2door

Door2door wants to develop services “that feel like your private car but are shared solutions and need far less cars to fulfill needs,” says Nohroudi. What the company envisages, he says, is not a German version of Uber or a different form of current commercial car sharing, but something more radical: “Our goal is to enable municipal public transport providers to offer shared mobility with the help of advanced digital technology, and keep the profits within the cities and regions instead of sending them to large platforms like Uber.” 

Currently, two trial runs are underway. In Duisburg, an industrial city in the Ruhr valley, citizens can book a trip with the communal public transport provider, DVG, through an app developed by door2door. Since its foundation in the mid-19th century, DVG has offered only fixed bus and tram lines to its customers. But now when a passenger books a trip, a brand new mini-bus with five passenger seats and a luxurious feel to it arrives within minutes, just like a taxi. When using the app, customers get a full overview of all transport options and their costs.

“We see large potential for on-demand services to connect people in the outskirts with regular train and tram lines, without having to sustain fixed bus lines that are rarely used in off-peak times,” says Felix zur Nieden, a DVG spokesperson. A second, similar trial run is under way in a rural area in Bavaria.

Last month, a much bigger player entered this field: Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s largest rail operator. In addition to its many regional and high-speed trains and buses, which transport 12 million people per day, the company has built up a network of rental cars and rental bicycles in recent years that can be picked up and returned at train stations and other fixed locations. Now, Deutsche Bahn wants to launch a much deeper innovation: a project called “ioki” that will combine driverless cars, on-demand services, and electric vehicles into a new mode of travelling. 

“We want to enable our customers to travel smoothly without owning a car, on demand, in both cities and the countryside and in connection with our train services,” said Berthold Huber, CEO of Deutsche Bahn’s passenger services. Pilot projects are planned in Hamburg and Leipzig.

“Digital technology will enable us to build cooperative mobility systems that are so attractive to users that they might forget their former love of owned cars,” says Alexander Jung of Agora Transport Transformation.

That goal may remain elusive without substantial policy changes. “As long as we subsidize environmentally harmful modes of transportation with 28.6 billion euros per year, nothing will change,” says Krautzberger, president of the German Environment Agency. Among the subsidies she would like scrapped are tax benefits for diesel cars and generous tax deductions for the cost of commuting to work by car.

“Fundamental change will come, since the mobility sector needs to reduce emissions fast,” Jung says. “The only question is whether German car companies will be players in this change or be replaced by others.”