Berliners react to diesel′s possible demise | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 28.02.2018
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Berliners react to diesel's possible demise

German diesel vehicle owners accept that diesel is on its way out. But they're enraged that politicians haven't forced emissions-cheating carmakers to retrofit existing diesel cars with proper pollution abatement kits.

Daniel Rudat was applying furniture oil to a teak-wood table at Karel Möbel, a funky store jammed with an assortment of Indonesian and local German-made wooden furniture tucked away underneath the arches of the elevated rail line near Berlin's famous Friedrichstrasse train and subway station, when DW strolled in to chat about the diesel ban issue.  

Read more: German court allows city ban on diesel cars

Berlin's city government isn't about to ban diesel vehicles from its streets — but as of this week, it could choose to do so in future, if it wanted to. So could any German city. Karel Möbel had recently acquired a new panel van to move furniture from suppliers to the store and from the store to customers. It was, of course, a diesel van, as many vans in Germany are.  

Picture of German administrative court in Leipzig

On Tuesday, February 27, the German federal administrative court issued a final ruling confirming that German municipalities have the right — though not the obligation — to apply diesel vehicle bans in order to protect urban air quality. 

Work-horses of the trades economy 

"Diesel motors are more robust, they last longer. And they're much more efficient than gasoline engines. It would cost a lot more to fuel a gasoline-engine van," Rudat said.

Read more: The death of diesel? What the German court verdict could mean

He isn't worried that the city might impose a ban on diesel engines, because "that would mean shutting down business entirely; everyone uses diesel vans." Berlin's city government has already signalled that it has no intention of imposing any kind of diesel ban, and instead will work to improve air quality through other measures, such as improved public transport.

Deutschland Bremerhaven VW Kleinlaster der Firma Deutsche See

It's an open question what might take their place as the trusty work-horses of the trades economy.

Rudat believes though, the resale value of diesel-engine vehicles will now decline sharply in Germany. Considering the store's new diesel van in that light, he said: "I guess maybe we'll just keep it, and drive it for years and years until it's done."

What will tradesmen drive five or ten years from now, other than ageing diesel-powered vans? "I don't see what we could replace them with, for trucking goods around," the furniture seller said.  

Electric panel vans 

Not yet, at least. A co-worker of Rudat's joined the conversation, and we talked for a while about technology alternatives that might be available in a few years' time. Will Tesla Motors produce an electric-motor panel van to complement its big "Tesla Semi" long-distance trailer trucks, which it has claimed will go into production in 2019? Will German makers like Volkswagen or Mercedes build electric vans? Will hydrogen powered internal combustion engines become viable?

Rudat was surprised to learn that at least one type of panel van powered entirely by electricity is in daily use on German roads already: The Streetscooter, which Germany's privatized postal service, Deutsche Post DHL Group, began producing for its own use a couple of years ago.

That transpired because DHL Group's CEO decided to be serious about corporate sustainability. The company, which is one of the world's largest logistics companies, had initiated a program called "GoGreen" aimed at reducing its fleet's CO2 emissions, but couldn't find suitable electric delivery vans for sale.

Deutsche Post Elektroautos StreetScooter

Deutsche Post DHL decided in December 2014 to solve the problem of car emissions by buying Streetscooter, an electric vehicle company that began life as a startup from the technical university in Aachen.

Would Rudat consider buying an electric panel van? "We'll see," he said. "Our store just got the new diesel van, so we're not in the market at this point. Whether we'd consider electric rather than diesel in future depends more than anything on the van's range. If electric van makers sort that out, and the price is right, they'll do good business."

Diesel commuter blues

Oliver Haid, a psychiatrist specialized in treating children and youths, was enjoying a post-shift glass of beer in the company of his wife at a pub in central Berlin when DW stopped in to ask whether he happened to be a diesel car driver. It turned out he was. And what did he think about the prospect of German cities possibly imposing diesel bans in the future?

Read more: Opinion: Germany's courts take the wheel on diesel bans

"I can understand that air quality needs to be protected," Haid said. "And it was meant to be protected by the emissions standards the law required carmakers to meet. Only they didn't meet them. They cheated instead. Systematically and for years, they committed fraud."

That meant the real emissions from diesel cars — not just from Volkswagen, the first company to get caught when the emissions test cheating scam came to light in 2015, but from other brands, too — were often ten times over the legal limit.

"Now it turns out that the problem could be solved in technical terms by re-equipping diesel cars with larger diesel emissions fluid tanks," Haid continued. "It would cost about one to three thousand euros per diesel vehicle, depending on the model. But is the government requiring the carmakers to modify the cars and solve the problem? No." 

Watch video 02:50

German diesel bans set to affect businesses

Who will pay? Car owners, taxpayers 

Instead, the government appears to be vacillating between two options, Haid said. One option would require the carmakers to do almost nothing, leaving diesel car owners vulnerable to urban driving bans, and sitting on cars whose resale value would consequently drop. Indeed, diesel resale values have already plummeted.

Read more: Will taxpayers foot the bill for Dieselgate?

Or alternatively, the government apparently is considering having the cars re-equipped with the required anti-pollution systems at public expense. Taxpayers would foot the bill. Meanwhile, Volkswagen and other carmakers are enjoying record sales and profits, Haid noted. "This is just bottomless impudence," he said angrily. "The effrontery of it — it's just stunning. These corporations deliberately committed a massive fraud that harmed public health. They should damn well be required to pay for fixing the problem. It's just stunning that the government is considering letting them off the hook and making taxpayers pay for the re-fit instead."

Value drop

The psychiatrist told of a friend who had bought a Volkswagen Multivan, one of the most popular vans on German roads, which in the past has tended to have a high resale value in used-car markets. Last year, the man bought a second-hand, four-year-old Multivan for €28,000 ($34,224) — its new-car price would have been about €50,000, Haid estimated.

"And now, since the diesel ban debate got started over the past few months, the resale value of my friend's van has collapsed.  It's worth about €18,000 now." The vehicle lost €10,000 in value in less than a year as a direct result of the diesel scandal. "That's the financial price my friend is paying for the carmakers' fraud," Haid said with fury. 

Read more: Germany's air pollution: Clean up or pay up?

Not only has urban air quality been far worse than it might have been for the past decade or more because of it. In addition, "every diesel car owner has been financially damaged — significantly so. And the government is considering letting the carmakers off the hook? Making taxpayers pay for re-equipping the cars?"

Raising his hand to his temple to emphasize his incredulity, Haid concluded: "The shamelessness of it is just stunning. It's breath-taking. I cannot understand why the politicians appear to be unable to hold the carmakers to account for their fraud."

Watch video 01:02

Who will foot the bill for Germany’s pollution problem?