The Autobahn A 5 near Frankfurt, Germany. / Michael Probst, AP
BERLIN - Germans may spend millions on solar panels, be champions of recycling and plan a dramatic exit out of nuclear power in favor of green energy, but don't ask residents of this automobile-loving nation to stop roaring down the Autobahn in powerful, gas-guzzling cars.
"Every country has its quirks and for Germany that's cars," said Jos Dings, director of Transport and Environment, a European organization promoting sustainable transport. "Germany is increasingly the last bastion where the car is a symbol of macho culture."
Birthplace to some of the world's biggest luxury car brands such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW, the average horsepower for new cars increased again in the first few months of this year to 141, according to a study published by the CAR-Center Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen this week. Last year, the average horsepower for new cars was 138 and in 1995 it was "just" 95.
Speed goes hand in hand with those big engines, propelling drivers down the country's famous Autobahns at speeds of more than 120 mph. Analysts say introducing speed limits on those fast lanes would reduce emissions, but Germans say such a move would be political suicide for any lawmaker brazen enough to try.
"It's considered part of individual freedom, the entitlement to drive as fast as you want to at least on segments of the Autobahn," said Max Gruenig, a research fellow at the Ecologic Institute, an environmental think tank in Berlin. "If you are a politician you don't want to campaign on this issue."
But the issue still needs to be tackled at some point because of EU laws on emissions, which Germany has to follow, that set a 40% reduction target for cars by 2021 over 2007 levels.
In an effort to meet those conditions, the German government is pushing to have 1 million electric or hybrid vehicles on German roads by 2020. The problem is - even with incentives such as free parking in cities being mulled for drivers of such autos - most people here don't want them. And many agree the country won't hit those ambitious targets because just 100,000 out of 43 million cars on German roads currently have fully electric or hybrid engines.
Even so, German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche and McKinsey, a consulting firm, rank Germany alongside Japan and the U.S. as one of the world's leading producers of electric vehicles. They project Germany to be producing 440,000 annually in five years, just behind Japan, but ahead of China and the U.S.
For their part, German carmakers say efficiency and sustainability are top priorities when it comes to the premium car sector. The country's automakers are among the most innovative in the world when it comes to clean diesel and gas use, and middle- and top-class cars have reached fuel consumption levels previously aimed for only in compact cars, said Matthias Wissmann, president of German Association of the Automotive Industry.
"The aim is not always smaller, but always lighter and more efficient," Wissmann said. "The German automotive industry will invest 10 to 12 billion euros ($13.5 billion to $16 billion) alone in the next three to four years in alternative engines - that's 40% of all research and development investment."
But transportation experts say the carmakers are not doing enough, fast enough. Big luxury, gas-guzzling cars are a problem â?? small, light cars produce fewer emissions and are better for the environment. But Germany's car manufacturers see bigger returns on bigger cars.
"The car industry makes a lot of money with these big, heavy cars," said Jens Hilgenberg, transportation analyst at environment group, Friends of the Earth Germany. "We need to make cars that are more economical when it comes to diesel and gas usage."
Until the technology catches up, Germans seem intent on maintaining their high speeds, enjoying the open roads and relishing the roar of a finely tuned engine.
"I don't put much stock in introducing speed limits (on the Autobahn)," said John Gottwald, 59, as he sat in his taxi - a Mercedes. "I find it enjoyable to drive fast. Anyway, cars are getting more and more environmentally friendly."
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