As Dieselgate scandal widens, will Germany finally tackle transport emissions?
Facing their biggest scandal in recent history, German automakers are scrambling to save face. Environmentalists view their overtures with skepticism, but say recent developments point to a tipping point on the horizon.
The Dieselgate scandal has reached a climax in recent days. Yet another unknown illegal defeat device was discovered in one of Daimler's Mercedes-Benz models. Then came the news that disgraced former VW boss Martin Winterkorn had been indicted for fraud and false certification.
But as a scandal-plagued industry feverishly tries to recall millions of cars and update emission-cheating software, it's also trying to remove the dark diesel stain from its image by moving toward full electrification.
It appears that Germany's automotive industry might finally have given up on the combustion engine. Critics, however, aren’t so sure.
Yet to come clean
Revelations in 2015 that VW willfully cheated emissions tests to hide toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) hit the German automotive industry like a bombshell. Yet in the time since, "the car companies have not come clean," according to Benjamin Stephan, a Transport & Climate Change campaigner at Greenpeace.
About two weeks after Volkswagen admitted behind closed doors to US environmental regulators that it had installed cheating software in some 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide, the Environmental Protection Agency shared that information with the public. It was September 18, 2015. The ensuing crisis would eventually take a few unexpected turns.
Volkswagen's then-CEO Martin Winterkorn (above) had little choice but to step down several days after news of the scandal broke. In September 2015, he tendered his resignation, but retained his other posts within the Volkswagen Group. Winterkorn's successor was Matthias Müller. Until taking the reins at VW, Müller had been the chairman at Porsche, a VW subsidiary.
Regulators in the US weren't the only ones investigating VW. Authorities in Lower Saxony, the German state in which VW is based, were also scrutinizing the company. On October 8 2015, state prosecutors raided VW's headquarters along with several other corporate locations.
On January 4, 2016, the US government filed a lawsuit against VW in Detroit, accusing the German automaker of fraud and violations of American climate protection regulations. The lawsuit sought up to $46 billion for violations of the Clean Air Act.
In March 2016, the head of VW in the US, Michael Horn, resigned. In the initial days and weeks after the scandal broke, he was the one US authorities turned to for information. He issued an official apology on behalf of the automaker, asking for the public's forgiveness.
On October 25 2016, a US judge approved a final settlement that would have VW pay $15.3 billion. In addition, affected cars would be retrofitted with better, non-deceptive hardware and software, or else VW would buy them back completely from customers.
When dieselgate first emerged in 2015, analysts said it was likely other car makers were also cheating tests. But it wasn't until 2017 that other companies were targeted in probes. In July, German authorities launched investigations into luxury car makers Porsche and Daimler for allegedly cheating emissions tests. Others, such as Audi and Chrysler, have also been hit by similar allegations.
Despite dieselgate, VW has managed to keep the emissions scandal from utterly tarnishing its image. According to several polls, between 55 to 67 percent of Germans continue to trust the automaker. In the US, polls show that roughly 50 percent still believe the German company produces worthwhile vehicles.
In late January, however, VW suffered another heavy blow over reports that the company experimented on monkeys and made the animals inhale diesel fumes. To make matters worse, a separate experiment that had humans inhale relatively harmless nitrogen dioxide was revealed at the same time. Some media wrongly interpreted this to mean humans were also inhaling toxic fumes.
Years after the scandal that caused Volkswagen to pay CAN$2.4 billion (US$1.83 billion), a court in Toronto order a further fine of CAN$196.5 million. Volkswagen pleaded guilty of violating in environmental laws. Prosecutor Tom Lemon noted that the fine was "26 times the highest fine ever for a Canadian environmental offence."
"They have claimed that they would do everything to reveal all their wrongdoings and make them right again. And in fact they have not," he says.
Stephan and Greenpeace commissioned a report in September 2018 from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) that shows that – if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees as demanded by the UN's Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – fossil fuel-powered vehicles need to be completely phased out by 2025, or 2028 at the latest.
The drastic recommendation responds to the fact that transport is the only major EU sector in which CO2 emissions have been on an upward trend for decades. In Germany too, transport sector emissions rose by 2.3 percent in 2017, and were 2 percent higher than in 1990. Transport accounts for around 25 percent of total carbon emissions in Europe, and 18 percent in Germany.
But the cozy alliance between Germany's ruling CDU party and the powerful car lobby suggests that the decarbonization of the auto industry in 10 years is unlikely.
When the EU agreed late last year to cut CO2 emissions by 37.5 percent for new vehicles in 2030 (compared to 2021 levels), Berlin lobbied hard for a 30 percent cut. German auto industry group VDA typically called the target "overambitious" — even if the final compromise fell below the Paris target.
Critics like Jürgen Resch of Environmental Action Germany (DUH) have accused Chancellor Angela Merkel of being the "Autokanzlerin" ("auto chancellor," in English). The auto sector accounted for roughly 4.5 percent of the GDP in 2015 at the time Dieselgate began, according to an estimate from Germany’s Federal Statistical Office.
More nefarious collusion between auto industry competitors was also revealed by the European Commission (EC) on April 5 when it sent a "Statement of Objections to BMW, Daimler and VW for restricting competition on emission cleaning technology."
It found in its "preliminary view" that the German automakers "participated in a collusive scheme, in breach of EU competition rules, to limit the development and roll-out of emission cleaning technology for new diesel and petrol passenger cars sold in the Europe Economic Area." The allegation is set to further inflame Dieselgate in the coming months.
Human health impacts
Berlin has also questioned the European Commission's NOx pollution limits (40 micrograms per cubic meter of air), with German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer earlier this year urging the regulation be reviewed, arguing the health impacts are debatable (the relevant study was later found to contain errors).
"The German government has been slow to recognize the health impacts of its diesel policy," Ray Minjares, who heads the Program on Clean Air at San Francisco-based NGO the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told DW.
"Germany suffers the fourth highest health burden in the world from transport-related pollution," he added, referring to a February ICCT study that estimates 13,000 premature deaths were caused by transport-related pollution in Germany in 2015 — roughly 31 percent of all outdoor air pollution health impacts.
Read more: Opinion: The lies of Martin Winterkorn
Germans are as attached to their forms of transport as the English are to their monarchy. No wonder: Gottlieb Daimler invented the modern car; Nicolaus August Otto co-invented the internal combustion engine. Every child knows the brands Daimler, BMW, Audi and VW, and that motorways were first built in Germany. But transport systems will become greener and more flexible, traffic researchers say.
Since 2008, more people live in cities than in rural areas, and that trend is increasing. Urban zones will become CO2-neutral, climate-adapted, digitized and automated, Fraunhofer Morgenstadt Initiative researchers say. Networking will encourage more efficient means of transport, the sharing economy will catch on, mobility will become a service. No more need for your own car.
With worldwide networking possible via the internet, cities and traffic systems can be coordinated. This could mean automatically switching traffic lights according to the flow of vehicles. Sensors could transmit data and prevent vehicles from hitting each other, thus avoiding accidents. Servicing, maintenance, insurance and parking meters may become unnecessary.
Will Amazon, Google and others become the new carmakers and put the drivers in the back seat? Interesting question — although self-driving cars have recently been dealt a setback. Testing at US company Uber was suspended after a self-driving car ran over a woman by night.
Today the streets are clogged, lights are red, you're stuck in a traffic jam, going to miss that appointment. Car horns, anger, insults: that's stressful. But rage and provocation could become things of the past if self-driving cars become the norm. Then, passengers can sit back and laugh about the old days.
Order your ride or taxi by app. Public and collective transport is increasingly being organized via the internet. You can even pay for the service through your smartphone.
The car's future is electric, that seems to be the consensus; the only question is, when? Despite investing billions into e-cars, there's a lack of options and sites for charging electric vehicles. Together with high costs, consumers are concerned. Alternatives to e-cars could fill the gap: fuel-electric hybrids, and other vehicles powered by hydrogen or synthetic fuels.
Postal workers are climate-friendly when they deliver letters by foot or bike, but for parcels they need vehicles. Deutsche Post (DHL) and Aachen Technical University have invented the CO2-free StreetScooters, powered by renewable energy. One of the challenges of the future is to make sure the electricity used in electric vehicles is also climate-friendly.
It looks a little like a Smart car, but it's actually an e-bike on four wheels. The Podride is 1.8 meters (6 feet) long and has a closed cab with a comfy seat. It travels file on snow and ice, it's heated, it can manage steep and uneven slopes, and there is even storage space. The driver steers by way of two levers at the seat and pedals to power the rear wheels with help from the electric motor.
From many clever minds comes a clever idea. A dozen companies are developing personal aircraft. This rocket-like Vahana flying car prototype from Airbus is designed to beam a passenger along at 9,150 meters (30,000 feet) altitude, reaching speeds of 480 kilometers (298 miles) per hour. Battery swaps would be like Formula 1 pit stops: quick landings, and on you go.
The Bauhaus Luftfahrt association is developing an airport and aircraft concept. The Ce liner would be power by two electric engines with aerodynamically efficient C-shape wings. Inner-city airports of the future would be arranged over several levels to save on space, with lift-off from the top level and battery charging on lower floors.
The Swiss mountain village of Stoos boasts the steepest cable railway in the world. It rises up 744 meters in altitude as it travels 1.7 kilometers in just four minutes. The village has 150 permanent residents, but 2,000 hotel beds for visitors to come and enjoy the view in the car-free resort. Maybe someday the Himalayas will have a similar system?
Can you imagine the world without your own car? Until now, the car has represented prosperity and independence. But experts see mobility as becoming smart in the near future, with cars being used by multiple users and forming just one part of a range of mobility offerings.
According to the ICCT report, on-road diesel vehicles in Stuttgart, Germany’s auto capital, were responsible for 78 percent of the health burden from transportation emissions in 2015 — higher than any other major world city.
Environmental Action Germany has initiated numerous state and federal court actions to have diesel vehicles banned in German cities on the grounds of air quality. After Chancellor Merkel herself opposed such bans, a landmark February 2018 case saw Germany's top federal administrative court cleared the way for local courts to impose restrictions to fight diesel pollution.
A ban on outdated diesel vehicles soon followed in Munich and Stuttgart, with subsequent bans in cities like Leipzig, Hamburg and Bonn, and even on some autobahns.
Yet implementation is another matter, says Dorothee Saar, who heads Transportation and Air Pollution Control at Environmental Action Germany. "The majority of cities, especially those like Stuttgart, are only focusing on how to avoid the diesel ban, how to get rid of it," she says, noting that the car lobby is instead arguing for extra bus lanes, or against the actual health impacts of NOx, to dilute bans that often only affect a couple of city streets.
Meanwhile, the ongoing "No diesel ban in Stuttgart" protests — organized by Porsche worker Jannis Sakkaros — in which participants have adopted the same yellow vests as protesters in France, are trumpeting the populist slogan that average citizens, and not the elites, are being made to suffer.
From April 1 it will be illegal to drive diesel vehicles made before the Euro 5 standard was developed in 2009 in Stuttgart. This after an environmental group went to court to force the city into action. But 'yellow vest' styled protests have pushed back with class and economic arguments for three months. The city will decide whether to ban Euro 5 diesels after emissions tests in mid-2019.
Hamburg became the first German city to introduce partial bans in June 2018, with two-thirds of its 300,000 diesels forced off two of its main roads. The city is one of about 80 in Germany where nitrogen oxide levels often surpass the European threshold of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. In February 2018 the top federal court cleared the way for state courts to impose bans to improve air quality.
Munich has relatively low pollution levels but lost in court to German environmentalists in 2017. It refused to implement the bans. After Dieselgate, the EU acted on Germany's lax controls, but much of the country is still resistant. Last year Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed the EU to allow a buffer of 10 micrograms in cities and promised to introduce laws protecting older diesel owners.
With the dirtiest air in the densely populated state of NRW, Cologne was served with a court order last year but has appealed. The city has found ways to clean up its atmosphere through low emission buses, truck detours, traffic lights and cycling infrastructure. Nearby Düsseldorf has introduced 60 such measures to avoid the bans, while Bonn has appealed an order due to take effect in April
Berlin has until July to implement a clean air plan but drafts so far say 11 major streets will be closed to diesels up to Euro 5 standard. More than 100 roads will be limited to 30 km/h (18 mph). The city will also bring on 200 new double decker buses ―powered by diesel ― part of a broader investment in new public transport to battle air pollution.
Has Dieselgate turned the tide?
But as emissions cheating scandal continues to escalate, the German auto industry may have reached a tipping point. Both Saar and Stephan agree that grassroots pressure, including the global climate protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, is putting the industry under even more pressure.
Luisa Neubauer, who leads the Thunberg-inspired Fridays for Future protests in Germany — including one in Berlin on March 29 that saw around 25,000 people march in the capital — recently questioned German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier during a debate that was published in Spiegel Online.
"How nice of you to bring up the area of transportation, which produces emissions that are currently higher than in 1990," Neubauer said. "We see that our future is far lower on your priority list than is that of Volkswagen."
Read more: Fridays for Future announces ambitious climate goals for Germany
One entity that might be buckling under the pressure is the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), which was accused in 2017 of watering down key passages of its reports on emissions cheating.
But when the industry regulator uncovered the latest Daimler defeat device deception — as opposed to the journalists and NGOs who tend to act as watchdogs — it was a sign of change, says Benjamin Stephan.
There is now some hope that the KBA has "woken up, or at least they no longer feel like they are an institute servicing the car industry, but are actually a regulator," he says.
And with VW pledging to become one of the world's largest EV producers, and to phase out combustion engine vehicles completely by 2040, Stephan believes the industry is showing real signs of a paradigm shift. "It's way more than a greenwashing scam," he told DW.
Perhaps indicative of this shift, the BMW Group told DW it now "accepts the challenge" of meeting the 2030 C02 emission reduction target. BMW says the success of electro-mobility will depend on a "sustainable incentive system" coordinated by all EU member states.
An electrified future
It is true that in Norway, where fossil fuel vehicles will no longer be sold in 2025, one-third of transportation is already electrified through e-mobility tax incentives and subsidies.
So while Mercedes-Benz announced plans to offer electric versions of all its models by 2022, Dorothee Saar says the industry needs to be pushed further through, for example, the ending of lower taxes for diesel fuel.
But with government and industry having lost so much trust, any mobility revolution in Europe's largest economy might ultimately be up to the people.