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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

From major manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen to the world-famous Autobahn, Germany is said to be a country that loves its cars - but how much truth is there behind the stereotype?

Cars in Stuttgart
Cars sit in a traffic jam in Stuttgart city centre. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

In many ways, Germany is a car lover’s paradise. Not only are some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers based here, but drivers also enjoy numerous rights that they don’t elsewhere, from cheap parking permits to speed-limit-free sections of the Autobahn.

It’s no wonder then that the country has developed a reputation for being somewhat car obsessed. But how true is it really? We take a look at some of the facts. 

The endless Tempolimit row 

It’s a topic that’s almost never out of the news, and a debate that has been rumbling on for years: should Germany finally introduce a hard speed limit on sections of its Autobahn? 

In German politics, the Green Party has been one of the loudest voices calling for so-called Tempolimit in recent years, arguing that the move would prevent accidents and drastically cut carbon emissions on the motorway. However, the liberal FDP were dead-set against the move when the ironically named traffic-light coalition sat down at the negotiating table last year. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that public opinion in Germany has been swinging towards the Greens. When framed as a solidarity measure in an ARD poll, 60 percent of Germans said they would be in favour of a temporary speed limit on the Autobahn, while just 35 percent were against.

Most surprisingly, even Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) – who’s said to be a huge fan of fast cars – has softened his stance on the measure in recent weeks. In an interview on political podcast Lage der Nation, Lindner signalled his readiness to negotiate on the issue.

“I would immediately be prepared to say that we would impose a speed limit in Germany if the nuclear power plants were to run longer,” he told podcast hosts Ulf Buermeyer and Philip Banse. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany introduce a motorway speed limit?

German car manufacturers 

One of the reasons Germany is so closely associated with cars is the unwavering national pride in its car manufacturers. BMW, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are all German brands – and politicians in Germany have often been accused of being in the pockets of these big companies over the years. 

Indeed, former chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has been branded the “car Chancellor” for her perceived friendliness towards the car industry – even when it interfered with her environmental aims. And there are endless jokes on German satire shows about Christian Lindner supposedly taking his policy ideas from the CEO of Porsche. 

However, there’s no denying that car manufacturing plays a significant role in the German economy. In 2021, the sector employed almost 790,000 people and turned over a whopping €410 billion – accounting for 24 percent of domestic industry revenue. Seen from that perspective, it’s understandable that successive governments have wanted to keep these heavyweights on-side. 

Angela Merkel BMW

(Former) Chancellor Angela Merkel looks an electric BMW at a car expo in Hannover in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Peter Steffen/dpa | Peter Steffen

Car ownership 

Though driving is clearly close to Germans’ hearts, it may surprise you to know that the Bundesrepublik is by no means at the top of the ranks in Europe when it comes to car ownership.

In a ranking of motor vehicles per capita in the EU, Germany actually ends up somewhere in the lower-middle, with a total of 14 member states – including France, Portugal, Italy and Finland – boasting more cars, vans and freight vehicles per person. (In case you’re interested, the Italian micro-state of San Marino topped this particular chart.) 

However, when you look at the number of motor vehicles in total, rather than just per capita, the stats paint a slightly different story. While Italy and France both have around 45 million motor vehicles in the country, there are 52 million of them in Germany.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with each other?

Average mobility spend

Of course, that’s not to say that the German love affair with driving is entirely a myth. A recent study found that the average German spends a whopping €233 per month on their Auto, which adds up to almost €2,800 per year, compared to just €33 per month on buses and trains. 

That’s not including the outlay for a car in the first place, which can cost well into the tens of thousands. 

Debates over right-of-way

The seemingly unshakeable bond between Germans and their cars has become the subject of heated debate recently as the government tries to encourage people to switch to more climate-friendly options. Some argue that people have become far too attached to convenience and need to make lifestyle changes, while others say the transport network in Germany just isn’t good enough to support this.

In fact, it would probably be fair to say that there are two competing forces in German civil society at the moment: those who are fighting to reshape cities for a more eco-friendly future, and those who are fighting for drivers to maintain their rights and privileges (at least for now). 

Climate activists in Munich

Climate activists glue themselves to the road in Munich’s Karlsplatz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

The latest front for this battle is Berlin, where the Senate has recently been forced to re-open a busy street to cars after a court ruled that there was no valid legal basis to redirect traffic. Friedrichstraße had originally been blocked off the motor vehicles as part of a traffic trial in 2020 – but the cycle paths and pedestrian walkways had simply remained in place ever since.

As the signage redirecting vehicles is removed from Friedrichstraße, it seems that those who wanted cars to return to the busy thoroughfare have won the battle. But with the Senate vowing to push ahead with plans to pedestrianise the street in the long-term, they may not have won the war. 

READ ALSO: How Berlin Friedrichstraße ended up at the centre of the car-free debate

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DRIVING

Germany sees ‘highest fuel prices on record’ in 2022

Drivers in Germany have paid more at the pump than ever before this year, according to data from motorists' association ADAC. Here's what you need to know about the soaring prices - and when they could change.

Germany sees 'highest fuel prices on record' in 2022

What’s going on?

Drivers in Germany have had a record-breaking year this year – and not in a good way. Skyrocketing fuel prices have seen 2022 take the top spot as the most expensive year to ever refill your tank, according to data compiled by motorists’ association ADAC. 

Even if petrol and diesel were to be given away for free until the end of year, 2022 would still remain the priciest year on record. And if prices at the pump remain roughly the same as they are now, the previous record for fuel prices will be completely “pulverised”, ADAC revealed. 

In 2012 – the previous most expensive year on record – E10 cost an annual average of €1.589 per litre, while diesel was €1.478. This year, there has not yet been a single day on which either type of fuel was cheaper on a national level. 

For E10, the annual average price is estimated to be around €1.88 per litre – around 29 cents higher than the average in 2012. For diesel, with an expected current annual average of €1.98 per litre, 2012’s average prices would be exceeded by about 50 cents.  

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices reached a dizzying peak of €2.30 per litre of diesel and €2.20 per litre of petrol. The prices have since dampened slightly and were much lower over summer due the government’s three-month cap on energy taxes. 

However, even billion-euro tax cuts haven’t been enough to compensate for the huge spike in prices on the energy markets. 

READ ALSO: German petrol costs rise sharply after tax cut ends

How is this affecting people’s budgets?

How expensive the higher tank prices will be for consumers depends on their vehicle type and driving behaviour.

Based on the ADAC’s projections for 2022 as a whole, as well as typical vehicle types and mileages, motorists would have had to pay hundreds of euros more this year than any time in the previous decade. 

For a diesel vehicle with an annual mileage of around 20,000 kilometres and a consumption of six litres per 100 kilometres, the costs will rise by around €860 per year, according to the ADAC forecasts. Petrol-driven cars generally cover shorter distances, but consume more.

Assuming a mileage of 10,500 kilometres per year and a consumption of 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres, the additional costs would be around €360.

To compensate for the price hikes, drivers appear to be making a switch to the slightly cheaper E10 petrol. In the first seven months of the year, the share of vehicles running on E10 was 22.8 percent, compared to only 15.8 percent over the same period in 2021.

According to the ADAC, making the switch shouldn’t be harmful to most petrol cars. 

“Almost all petrol engines can tolerate it, unless they are vintage cars,” ADAC’s Christian Laberer told DPA. “The price difference is usually five to six cents. Nevertheless, many more people still fill up with normal Super than E10.”

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The key traffic violations and fines to know about in Germany

Will the prices go down again next year?

With the outlook for the energy market still uncertain, ADAC doesn’t expect prices to drop significantly in the near future.

“There is a danger that the high prices will become entrenched in the market for a longer period of time,” Laberer explained. 

However, there could be some good news on the horizon for petrol car owners, he added.

That’s because petrol stations are once again competing for customers by lowering their prices slightly, which means petrol prices are far more closely linked to the actual price of oil than they have been at any point since the start of the Ukraine war. 

Fuel prices on display in Potsdam

Fuel prices on display in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Soeren Stache

For diesel, however, the outlook is much less rosy. According to Laberer, industry has partially responded to the energy crisis by replacing gas with diesel, which has driven up demand, and demand for the very similar heating oil is also rising again.

“But this does not justify how much the current prices are inflated,” Laberer emphasised.

READ ALSO: What to do if you get a parking ticket in Germany

Is the government doing anything to help?

Following the fuel tax cut over summer, another bit of tax relief should be coming for drivers in the coming months. 

Back in spring, the government agreed to increase the so-called commuters’ allowance for the 2022 tax year, meaning people who drive to their place of work should be able to write off even more from their taxes. 

Currently, the tax office recognises a flat-rate commuting allowance of 30 cents per working day for each kilometre of one-way travel. From the 21st kilometre onwards, the allowance goes up to 35 cents per kilometre. For 2022’s tax return, the traffic light coalition has increased the flat rate for long-distance commuters – i.e. for those who have to travel 21 or more kilometres to work – to 38 cents per kilometre.

Early next year, the traffic-light coalition also wants to launch a new transport ticket to ensure more affordable mobility for people in Germany. The so-called Deutschlandticket will cost €49 per month and can be used on local and regional transport anywhere in Germany. 

READ ALSO: ‘Deutschlandticket’: What you need to know about Germany’s new €49 ticket

Nevertheless, ADAC says the government needs to do more to support drivers and is calling for another rise in the commuters’ allowance – this time for short-distance as well as long-distance commuters.

This Monday, the Bundestag finance committee is due to discuss proposed changes to the 2022 tax law, including the plans to increase the long-distance commuters’ allowance to 38 cents per kilometre. 

“The draft of the annual tax law should be supplemented in the Bundestag deliberations with an increased commuting allowance from the first kilometre,” said ADAC transport president Gerhard Hillebrand. “Not only have the energy costs in transport risen massively, but the prices for new and used vehicles have also gone up as well.”

That means commuters are particularly affected by rising costs and must be supported even more than before, he added. 

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