U-turn on the Autobahn: Merkel Sees Germany Putting the Boots to Internal Combustion

After a lot of back and forth on citywide diesel bans and loads of corporate scandal, the German automotive industry has taken a public beating. However, with a few politicians still left in its corner, it’s managed to avoid some of Europe’s anti-combustion wrath. Proposed diesel bans haven’t yet come into effect, but there remains a strong contingent to force change with Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly taking a greener stance as an election looms.

There’s no shortage of controversy surrounding Europe’s automotive industry, and much of it surrounds environmental issues. The public solution is to move away from fossil fuels and promote electric vehicles through regulatory action within the next few decades — an idea Merkel now openly supports.

“I don’t want to name an exact year,” she said in a recent interview with SUPERillu. But she also believes Britain and France’s plans to phase out internal-combustion cars by 2040 is “the right approach.”

She claims that, if re-elected, the country’s automotive crisis will be a chief concern. Merkel has already made plans to head the next diesel summit following the election and, prior to that, speak with German municipalities most affected by air pollution to discuss how to implement EVs and charging networks.

However, according to Der Tagesspiegel, Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz announced the introduction of a pan-European electric-car quota to forcibly accelerate EV adoption last week — something Merkel rejects. “[Over] the weekend she rejected a quota for electric cars, today she calls for a diesel ban,” Schulz said. “Ms. Merkel has no plans for the German automotive industry.”

Merkel’s response stated her unwillingness to risk the 900,000 existing automotive jobs by forcing companies into production quotas they couldn’t meet. She reiterated a point made in an earlier speech — that executives have to be held accountable for misdeeds and make every effort to adhere to new regulations (as emissions standards will only become more stringent).

“Large sections of the auto industry have gambled away unbelievable amounts of trust,” she said. “This is a trust that only the auto industry can restore. And when I say ‘the industry’ I mean the company leaders.”

While a lot of this amounts to campaign rhetoric and political posturing, Europe is attempting to make major strides in reshaping the automotive industry. Internal combustion bans remain years away, but it’s unlikely automakers will risk it in the hope that future governments backslide. The EU seems united on the matter. This leaves questions of how the European automotive industry will evolve in the coming decades and what impact that will have on the global market.

If you’re thinking this will all blow over, that’s possible. But don’t hold your breath. European countries have suggested fossil fuel bans in the past and have only shored up their timelines over the last few years. In 2015, the U.K proposed swapping entirely to EVs by 2050, now it’s saying 2040.

That shortened timeline has warranted concerns about meeting the power needs of each individual country, too. With the UK government planning a cash-for-clunkers-style program for diesels within the next few years to bolster EV buying, the British Automobile Association has raised concerns over how the power grid would cope with a post-evening rush hour period where everyone plugs in their cars. Engineering analysts claim the U.K. would need to  produce an additional 30 gigawatts at peak hours to facilitate vehicle charging. That’s roughly 10 times the energy the most advanced nuclear power station can produce at any given time — meaning some serious construction planning needs to be done immediately.

Since green energy isn’t likely to support the massive need for electricity across most of Europe, regions like the U.K. will basically be forced to start assembly of nuclear power stations or opt for a slew of dirtier natural gas-powered plants.

Meanwhile, Germany already has some extra energy on tap, meaning it doesn’t have to worry about its grid just yet. But Merkel previously stated the country would slow its expansion into wind farming and shut down its 17 nuclear power stations by 2022. That could leave it without effective storage grids, requiring the need for new gas plants. Some research has suggested this might actually lead to increased emissions.

As for holding Germany’s automakers accountable, they’re being as amenable as circumstances require, though few have faced any real danger from the Fatherland (despite numerous ongoing investigations). Daimler has agreed to the possibility of another diesel summit, stating, “We were and are always prepared to engage in a constructive dialogue,” according to Automotive News. Volkswagen issued a similar statement, saying it was already “addressing the issues of the future.”

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