Can Germany forego heritage and embrace electric vehicles?

As countries across the world attempt to slow global warming, the switch to electric vehicles is particularly significant. But that requires wrenching change that is a death knell for hundreds of companies that make components for conventional engines. They will be obsolete in an EV world

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 21 Mar 2023, 9:40 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Mar 2023, 9:45 PM

When Germany acquiesced and joined other European Union countries in approving a ban on the internal combustion engine, many in the auto industry were surprised. Even though the country is partly led by the environmentalist Green Party and evidence of climate change is now irrefutable, the industrial world wondered if Germany really would surrender its advantage in conventional auto engineering built up over more than a century.

After all, it was Nikolaus Otto, a German engineer, who developed the four-stroke internal combustion engine as the first practical alternative to the steam engine. On 26 January 1891, in Cologne, Otto successfully demonstrated a compressed charge internal combustion engine that ran on petroleum gas, a working breakthrough that led to the modern engine we know today. A name that might be more familiar, Gottlieb Daimler, was helping in the engine’s development effort.


Is Germany now willing to forego that heritage and solely embrace electric vehicles?

Not so fast. A political battle is underway in the EU as Germany says an environmentally-friendly fuel could be employed to still use that national treasure. Some other EU members are joining on the side of Germany, while France is leading the charge to banish all international combustion engines by 2035.


The team of car-producing countries now say rules mandating the end of new combustion-engine cars — already approved by the European Parliament and agreed in principle by member countries — need to be modified.

The German government, alongside allies Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, is pressing for approval so cars can run on e-fuels — a synthetic alternative to fossil fuels that can power conventional combustion engines.

The German plan calls for capturing existing CO2 in the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen extracted using renewable electricity to make a fuel that can be used in any conventional engine. While the new mix would still release CO2 from a vehicle’s tailpipe, it is the same level as what was captured to create the fuel, so it can lay claim to carbon neutrality.

The gymnastics in logic and engineering come as Germany’s Transport Minister Volker Wissing of the Free Democratic Party, the junior member of Germany’s three-party ruling coalition, vows to protect suppliers and jobs associated with the internal combustion engine. After a string of local election defeats, the party’s Porsche-driving leader Christian Lindner has put the issue at the centre of efforts to attract voters.

As countries across the world attempt to slow global warming, the switch to electric vehicles is particularly significant. But that requires wrenching change that is a death knell for hundreds of companies that make components for conventional engines. They will be obsolete in an EV world.

Now it seems Germany is not going down the path of electric-only cars without a fight — even after two years of tortuous negotiations were concluded last fall with an agreement among all EU member states banning the internal combustion engine in new cars in Europe by 2035.

The industrial giant now might be looking for a loophole to use e-fuels, but some say it is more like grasping at straws. Production, transport and an actual market for such a fuel remain a big question mark.

Germany is not alone. Earlier this month the Czech Republic invited transport ministers from 11 EU counties to meet in Strasbourg to discuss the bloc’s landmark shift to electric vehicles. Czech Transport Minister Martin Kupka said that engine-friendly ministers were confident a deal could be reached, but France has clearly stated it is not interested in changing a measure that now only needs a formal stamp of approval from ministers to become law.

The standoff aligns France with other countries backing the 2035 clean car target including Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands.

But how protracted that standoff will be remains to be seen. More likely the bid by Germany is the last gasp of the internal combustion engine. Replaced by the silence and simplicity of the electric motor, the marvel of engineering that powered transport and dreams for more than 100 years will be relegated to nostalgia or online videos that show future generations what it was like.

Perhaps anticipating that day, Porsche headquarters already has a replication of what Germans call Laufkultur — the sound of a fine conventional car — offering visitors the chance to press a button and hear the baritone growl of a top-tuned engine.

Not really a realistic bid to rescue the internal combustion engine from the scrapheap of passé technologies, the recent move by Germany is instead intended to influence internal politics and appeal to the millions who grew up with one of the country’s proudest products.

Like analog vinyl records and Kodachrome film, the great engines of Mercedes, Porsche, Volkswagen and others will no doubt be remembered and revered. A niche will still advocate for them and own them, but the sun is setting on their day powering along main street.

(Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Italy.)


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