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Is "Made in Germany" Losing its Luster?

After several high-profile, high-tech mishaps, unease is growing in Germany that the country's reputation as a technological powerhouse has been hurt. Some wonder if German industry has lost its touch.

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Does German industry still have that spark?

The label "Made in Germany" has come to mean quality, reliable goods in much of the world, especially in electronic and automobile technology. But after the collapse of an ambitious, advanced road toll system along with several other high-profile technological failures, the sterling reputation of the "Made in Germany" name is being called into question, particularly among the German public.

"Can our engineers no longer manage to get anything right," was the headline in Bild, Germany's most widely read newspaper.

LKW Maut

Trucks drive under a scanner set up by Toll Collect.

The doubts began in earnest after the road toll system for heavy trucks, developed by a corsortium of two giants of German industry, DaimlerChrysler and Deutsche Telecom, along with a French partner, turned into an expensive fiasco.

The satellite-driven system was supposed to go into operation last August, but has been plagued with technical glitches and the start date has been repeatedly delayed. Toll Collect now says the system could be partially operational by December 31, 2004 and only fully up and running a year later, all at an estimated cost of €6.5 billion ($8.5 billion) in lost revenue for the government.

"This damages our image, and it's a setback for innovation," Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe said.

Rash of high-profile snafus

Toll Collect is only one of several high-tech failures that the German media has been loudly bemoaning.

"Our cars are behind the Japanese in mid-range quality rankings," according to Bild, "The Mars probe, developed with German know-how, disappeared, leaving no trace on the red planet."

Der neue Transrapid verkehrt ab morgen in Shanghai

The world's first commercial levitation train leaving Shanghai's Pudong International Airport for a trial run to Shanghai city's new Pudong financial district in China, Dec. 19, 2002.

The Transrapid (photo), a magnetic levitation train meant to showcase German technological prowess, is operating only on a trial basis in Germany and in China, where it has been beset by problems.

A planned electronic card for the 72 million enrolled in Germany's public health insurance funds threatens to turn into another Toll Collect-sized debacle. Experts are saying its introduction will likely have to be pushed back a year and a half from its planned 2006 launch date.

"It's very damaging to the reputation of German technology. It communicates to people that German industry is simply incapable," Siegried Brandt, Berlin chairman of the German Engineering Federation VDI, told DW-WORLD.

"That's not really the case, though," he added. He says German technology itself is less the problem than the management or financing of big technology projects.

"But the public doesn't understand that and they think [our engineers] can't do it anymore.," he said. "That could have serious economic consequences."

One of those consequences is the missed chance to export new technological systems to other countries. It was hoped that the high-tech road toll system would one day replace several older existing models in other countries. Instead, it has turned into an expensive international embarrassment.

Norbert Walter

Norbert Walter

"Foreigners are now "joking that the Germans, who do everything so systematically and precisely, were unable to make the toll system work," Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, told the newspaper Die Welt.

Others are quick to defend Germany's technological know-how, in spite of the latest failures. They dismiss the forecasts of impending industrial doom making their way through the German media.

"These are the kinds of mishaps that can happen anywhere," Henrike Vieregge of the Federation of German Industry told DW-WORLD. "They haven't dragged the 'Made in Germany' label through the dirt. Those words still stand for quality and reliability for a good price."

Keep a good thing

A proposal by the European Union's executive commission to replace "Made in Germany" with an EU-wide "Made in Europe" slogan had Germans balking. A large majority, 68 percent, rejected the suggestion. Only 5 percent thought the Europe label was preferable.

Outside of Germany, according to a survey in January, the Made in Germany label still has clout. German-made goods are perceived as being among the most reliable products in the U.S., Japan, the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, according to a survey by Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.

Leica Kamera Made in Germany

In the U.S., 52 percent of consumers have a "positive'' view of products made in Germany as do 60 percent of European consumers, the survey found.

"Despite the recent set-backs, I don't think the slogan has been affected as much as the media tells us," Kai Konrad, professor at Berlin's Free University, told DW-WORLD, saying each country still had its strengths and should play on them.

"I like to buy my laptops in the U.S.," he said. "Americans are still going to buy their BMWs and think they're great."

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