It came out yesterday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now considering bans on petrol and diesel cars — cars that use internal combustion engines (ICE). This possibility has been floated in the UK, France, India, Norway, the Netherlands, and certain German cities. However, it is a significant departure from the norm for the country’s leader, Merkel, to consider such a strong policy, and I would say that even in recent months I wouldn’t have expected it. The auto industry in Germany is just too strong and too interested in a slow transition to electric vehicles, and Merkel is much more a moderate than a revolutionary.
In general, there seem to be three core factors at work in Germany (and elsewhere) with regard to the auto industry:
1) Certain auto industry board members, execs, workers, and affiliates want any transition away from ICE vehicles to happen as slowly as possible — they push for this in the realms of policy, politics, marketing, communications, R&D, etc.
2) Certain auto industry board members, execs, workers, and affiliates believe the transition will happen quickly no matter what — for technological reasons as well as global political reasons — and are keen to preserve the strong market share of current leaders like Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen by being quick into the transition.
3) Outside forces are trying to hasten the industry’s shift to electric vehicles in order to protect our climate, boost the health of humans in their communities and around the world, and keep the planet livable for humans indefinitely.
From my conversations with various people and from covering this industry for years, I think there’s generally a boardroom battle at most large auto companies. Group #1 (above) is clearly in disagreement with group #2. That is the case on every level of the industry, and more so as Tesla has turned the heat on.
Germany’s political and policy leaders have provided a mixture of responses in the past year when it comes to auto industry fraud (regarding emissions). They have also provided a mixture of statements on policy options, ways to force group #1 to listen to group #2 and change course. Germany Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt recently said it’s too soon to talk of “burying the combustion engine.” However, around the same time, the Transport Ministry said it is “in principle open to instruments like class action lawsuits.” Meanwhile, Germany’s Deputy Economy Minister, Matthias Machnig, said EV quotas should be considered, which received a bit of backlash from those who did not support such policies.
Merkel herself said recently that we shouldn’t “demonize” diesel, which made it especially surprising yesterday when reading her statement that “a ban of ICE cars could be an option.” Why ban ICE cars if they aren’t horrible? Why not demonize a technology that results in tens or hundreds of thousands of premature deaths a year? If any terrorist group caused 1% of such harm, the world would be up in arms!
Perhaps reports of Germany’s large automakers colluding for decades in order to defraud the public simply tipped Merkel over the edge and pushed her to exclaim, “large sections of the auto industry have gambled away unbelievable amounts of trust,” and to genuinely consider future ICE car bans. The thing is, technically, the industry should be ready for a worldwide switch to electric vehicles by 2030, but moderate politicians like Merkel are still unlikely to require anything like this, in my humble opinion. And if they don’t, the industry will slow-walk the transition and try not to be crushed by the likes of Tesla, Geely, and BYD.
On the optimistic side, Merkel does seem to believe a shift to electric vehicles is inevitable and the government can hasten that shift. She also said this week, “I cannot name a specific date now, but the approach [banning ICE vehicles] is right, because if we invest more in charging infrastructure and technology for e-cars fast, a general transition will structurally be possible. …Otherwise, foreign companies will come one day and show how it’s done, how e-cars are made. I would like to avoid that.” That extra note does seem to put her in group #2 above. She even said that the German car industry had to “see the writings on the wall.” She may actually do more to save the German auto industry than it is willing to do itself.
Looking at the big picture, I think Merkel is playing an aggressive card with her new line of commentary in order to put a little pressure on the automakers (and genuinely try to help them not get burned), but I would still be shocked if she pushed through or signed onto an ICE ban (or anything like one) that would take effect before 2040, or even 2050. Certainly, I’d love to be proven wrong on this one.
- 7 Countries That May Ban Gas & Diesel Cars
- Germany’s Angela Merkel Looks To Electrification As Future Of German Auto Industry
- Angela Merkel: Don’t “Demonize” Diesel Cars
- Der Spiegel: German Auto Manufacturers May Have Been Collaborating On Diesel Emissions Fraud For Decades
- German Transport Minister: It’s Still Too Soon To Talk Of Burying The Combustion Engine
- German Transport Ministry: We’re Open To Class Action Lawsuits Against Auto Manufacturers Involved In Diesel Emissions Cheating Scandal
- Germany’s Deputy Economy Minister Says EV Quotas Should Be Considered
Image by Alexander.kurz (some rights reserved)
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