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car exhaust pipes
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jörg Loeffke

Germany and the future of diesel cars

Dirk Kaufmann
July 18, 2017

A German court is hearing arguments about what level of air pollution cities have to accept from diesel cars. Will they need to be retrofitted or simply banned? No matter what happens change won't be fast.


The street Am Neckartor in Stuttgart is one of the most dangerous roads in Germany. There, nitrogen dioxide concentrations of 82 micrograms per cubic meter of air have been measured. The legal limit is 40 micrograms per cubic meter. Some action must be taken, and not only because some Stuttgart residents have sued.

The group Environmental Action Germany (DUH) has also filed a lawsuit which is being heard as of Wednesday at the Stuttgart administrative court. The aim of the group is to ban the infamously dirty diesel cars from Stuttgart's inner-city traffic. A decision is expected this month.

However, the city is not only concerned about the plaintiffs, it must also comply with existing European Union rules and limits for the emission of pollutants.

A failure to do so will result in fines. Warning letters have already been sent from Brussels: a politician would say that there is a need for action.

Diesel forum

A "National Diesel Forum" will be held in Berlin on August 2. Politicians from the federal and state governments want to discuss how the problem can be addressed with representatives from the automotive industry.

In short, the alternatives seem to be driving bans or retrofitting improvements. The pollution caused by the dangerous nitrogen oxide (NOx) would sink most quickly by imposing a driving ban in the city center. According to the DUH, this could also keep nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in line with the rules.

But the whole thing is not that simple. Municipalities cannot impose general driving bans because at the moment they don't have the necessary legal basis.

Read more: EU Commission warns Germany for air pollution breaches

Stuttgart traffic at night
In Stuttgart at this late hour there is not much traffic, but during the day these emissions measuring devices have plenty to doImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Naupold

Another way would be to expand the existing exhaust classification system: yet even for this there is a lack of political will in Berlin.

Currently a sticker color is assigned according to the level of exhaust and permits or prevents driving in so-called environmental zones. 

Expanding the existing color palette of red, yellow and green stickers by one color would give more room to maneuver; and it would only be given to those vehicles which currently meet the strictest emission standards, Euro-6.

But German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt has already said that there will be no "blue stickers" under his administration.

If, however, a blue sticker was to magically appear, and German cities would be given the ability to ban the driving of the worst diesel cars through a change to their environmental zoning rules, the measures would take time to implement.

Proposed blue sticker for diesel cars
This is what the blue stickers would look like, though it is unlikely that they will end up on any carsImage: picture alliance/dpaB. Weißbrod

Going all the way

A driving ban to improve air quality would not only have to come quickly, it would also have to be comprehensive. For it would be completely pointless to relieve only isolated emission "hotspots." If in Stuttgart, for example, the road Am Neckartor was blocked for older diesel vehicles, their drivers would simply shift to other roads, slowing traffic there. The cars would be on the road longer, puffing out more harmful exhaust fumes in the stop-and-go traffic, which would be clearly counterproductive.

Now it's the manufacturers' turn

If administrative measures fail and political help cannot be expected, it remains up to the industry. Stuttgart is again a good example for this because of its pending lawsuits. The technology that brought us individual motorized movement came from the metropolis and two of the most famous German car manufacturers are based there: Daimler and Porsche, a subsidiary of Volkswagen.

It is probably at these doors that demands will end up: Build clean cars! And in particular diesels which emit less harmful emissions!

Clean cars - maybe something like the now infamous VW advertisement where an elderly lady holds her spotless white scarf to the exhaust pipe to prove that her Volkswagen diesel is clean.

That works in films and television, but not in real life. Even tricks and shut-off devices cannot help control emissions. No one needs a car that is only clean when it is being tested, especially no one in Stuttgart.

The same old threats

If, however, the "National Diesel Forum" places the responsibility on the manufacturers and requires them to retrofit cars to make them more environmentally friendly, the question arises: Why retrofit?

If the problem is technically solvable, it begs the question why it occured in the first place.

And again the manufactures have some explaining to do: Why did they build and sell dirty cars, if building clean ones would have been possible?

The executives in the company headquarters in Stuttgart and Wolfsburg are now well-versed in formulating statements and apologies. Their main argument, however, which for them is now second nature and one that they normally bring up whenever they need something is growing old: The German economy depends on the auto industry. Any disruption of this industry could have catastrophic consequences for the German economy and harm its standing as a research center, which would in turn seriously jeopardize its successful export sector.

Above all they claim the impact on the labor market would be significant: around 850,000 people work for the car manufacturers and their suppliers. The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), which has been run by a former transport minister for many years, presents an even more dramatic figure: According to the group, every seventh job in Germany is dependent on the auto industry.

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