German elections could put a speed limit on the sacred Autobahn for the first time

September 18, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Not long ago, the thought that Germans could vote the eco-hawk Greens into government would have been enough to turn the country’s powerful auto executives white with fear. 

Yet growing consumer consciousness of climate change, shifting investor preferences for cleantech, and Europe’s ambitious 2030 carbon emission targets have prompted Volkswagen Group, [hotlink]Daimler,[/hotlink] and BMW to embrace sustainability in order to survive. 

There is one red line they are drawing in the sand, however: Whoever inherits the country from Angela Merkel must not question the sanctity of the almighty Autobahn.  

Most current polls show there is no realistic path to a stable government after the Sept. 26 general election without the participation of the Greens. What worries the industry is not that in itself, however, but that the Greens might eventually succeed in instituting a longtime party proposal: a general speed limit that would end the era of people driving as fast as their cars can take them.

For automakers, the grave ramifications of this change could radiate far beyond the borders of the nation.

“Wherever you are from in the world, when you think of Germany, you think ‘Autobahn,’” said Ola Källenius, the Swedish-born boss of Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, last week at the Munich auto show. “Because consumers think German cars must be built better in order to withstand the high speeds, psychologically it becomes a stamp of approval. Why would an export nation ever want to so frivolously give this up?” 

The Autobahn became a beloved symbol of progress in postwar West Germany, even if it remains heavily tainted by its associations with the Nazi war effort. Together with the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, it stood for the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that rebuilt the country from rubble.

When the first Middle East oil crisis prompted the very first movement to put a limit on speeds, German motorist club ADAC rallied opposition to the cause with the slogan “Free roads for free citizens.” And Kraftwerk’s 1974 breakout album that put electronic music on the map borrowed inspiration and indeed its very name from the motorway. In short, the Autobahn is deeply engrained in the domestic psyche. 

“It truly is a USP made in Germany,” agreed Audi technical development head Oliver Hoffmann, using a Marketing 101 acronym for unique selling point—a competitive differentiator. Echoing his industry colleagues’ opposition, he too opposed a ban, framing the issue as an intervention in personal liberty. 

Speaking to Fortune, the premium brand’s chief engineer believes people won’t suffer from lead-foot syndrome in the future, anyway, since otherwise they would drain their battery too quickly.

“I’m convinced that driving behavior will change with the switch to electric vehicles, and the whole issue will solve itself as fewer people will then desire driving at such absolute top speeds,” he said. 

That is, if automakers don’t already do it for them. When Volkswagen launched the base ID.4 electric crossover, the Audi sister brand chose to limit it to no more than 160 km/h (99 mph) in order to conserve range. The sportier GTX version with dual motors tops out at just 180 km/h, pretty measly for a car boasting a €50,000 starting price tag. 

CO2 price more effective

So why are the Greens pushing so hard to get rid of what’s often called one of Germany’s most identifiable cultural icons? 

After all, the Autobahn already features speed limits that are flexible and targeted—an approach favored by the influential domestic auto industry. Roughly 30% of the infrastructure features some form of temporary or permanent speed limit, for example, where congestion and road and weather conditions dictate. 

“There is no quicker or more affordable instrument to improve safety and protect the climate than a speed limit of 130 km/h on the Autobahn,” wrote Green MP Stefan Gelbhaar in comments to Fortune. Conveniently, not a single penny would need to be spent on new traffic signs. 

Gelbhaar, the Greens’ traffic policy spokesman, likened those clinging to arguments like the personal freedom to drive recklessly fast to Luddites who have fond memories of spooling VHS cassettes while the rest are streaming videos on their smartphone. 

Yet the data is so inconclusive that the speed-limit debate rages on. 

A study published by the federal German Environment Agency last year found that transport-related CO2 emissions on national roads would be cut by 4.9% or 1.9 million metric tons were Gelbhaar’s demands instituted. That’s a tiny fraction of what a single lignite-fired power station in the country can emit alone.   

Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research argues there are far more effective methods. Chief among them is to institute an escalating carbon price for CO2 emissions, an initial floor of which was introduced in January with €25 per tonne.

“Far more important than the heated discussion about speed on the Autobahn is the speed of a CO2 price ramp-up,” the institute director and economist wrote to Fortune, citing the latter’s influence on all sectors of the economy, including transportation. “There are arguments for and against a speed limit, but whether you choose to institute one or not, it’s certainly clear that it is of less importance than a CO2 price.”

Motorists divided

If it doesn’t achieve a material reduction in emissions, perhaps then it can save more lives. 

To raise awareness, Volvo, the Swedish car brand that prides itself on a reputation for safety, voluntarily introduced last year a 180 km/h maximum speed for its new cars to send “a strong signal about the dangers of speeding.” (It met with bemused reactions from German auto managers at the time.) 

Taking precautions for myself and others as much as possible, this reporter tested out the limits of the Autobahn. Choosing a legal portion of the four-lane A9 motorway during a Sunday morning when traffic was scant, I accelerated a brand-new German sports car briefly to a speed of 300 kilometers an hour. It proved to be a lesson in the theory of relativity: At that blistering pace, other cars passed on the road looked as if they were parked at a complete standstill. Even if the vehicle could handle it, it’s the kind of thing you only try once.  

Yet the notion that higher speeds equal more accidents is not borne out by the facts, argues the ADAC. Comparisons between Germany and neighboring countries like Belgium and France, or with the United States, have not offered clear evidence that the Autobahn presents a greater peril, according to the motor club. 

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it may actually be the safest place for road users in Germany: Only 1.5 fatalities occur every billion kilometers driven on the Autobahn, compared for example with 4.7 on the federal highways, where a top 100 km/h speed limit won’t help you if you can still be hit by oncoming traffic in a blind curve. 

Surprisingly, ADAC stops short of an explicit policy recommendation on the issue, because its own members are themselves now split down the middle. A survey this year found that half supported a general speed limit versus 45% who opposed it; perhaps more important, those in favor have been gaining in number with each passing year since 2014, when they counted barely over a third. 

That kind of groundswell suggests it’s just a matter of time before the Greens enjoy clear nationwide support for their policy.

Axel Schmidt, head of the global automotive practice at consultancy Accenture, doesn’t believe the industry has anything to worry about, though. The thesis that lower speeds on highways will translate to lower demand for high-performance vehicles doesn’t hold water, in his opinion, since sales of German premium cars remain brisk in plenty of markets where this is already the case.

“There is no legitimate reason why Germany remains the only country in Europe not to have a speed limit,” he said.

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