Simanaitis Says

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A RECENT German Federal Administrative Court ruling complicates that country’s love affair with diesel cars. The decision gives German cities the power to ban vehicles, especially older diesels, from urban areas. German automakers are not amused, especially those feeling the bad karma resulting from their having illegally rigged diesels to pass emissions tests.

“Clean Air is not Negotiable!” reads a Greenpeace banner outside the Leipzig, Germany, court. Image by Sebastian Willnow/DPA in The New York Times, February 27, 2018, “German Court Rules Cities Can Ban Vehicles to Tackle Air Pollution,” by Melissa Eddy.

For years, Germany and other European countries have given significant tax benefits to diesel fuel; this, based on its efficient combustion and thus better fuel economy than gasoline’s. As an example, German diesel fuel is now around €1.18/liter. Super 95 gasoline is about €1.33/liter. And Premium 98 gasoline is around €1.50/liter. Figuring the Euro at $1.23 and the gallon at 3.785 liters, these prices are equivalent to diesel being $3.63/gal.; Super 95 gasoline costing $4.09/gal.; and Premium 98 gasoline at $4.62/gal.

By the way, these European gasoline octane numbers are not the same as “pump octanes” posted at U.S. service stations. The latter are the average of Research Octane and Motor Octane, the two methods of determining a gasoline’s antiknock characteristics. Europeans cite only the Research number, typically 8-12 points higher than Motor. Thus, Super 95 is perhaps comparable to our mid-grade 89; Premium 98 to our premium 92.

So, in fact, German diesel drivers get a real deal at the pump. But not especially in the air they breathe. A diesel engine inherently produces more oxides of nitrogen than a gasoline engine, NOx being one of the three regulated automotive pollutants. HC, unburned hydrocarbons, and CO, carbon monoxide, are the other two.

Even worse from a health point of view is a diesel exhaust’s particulate matter; loosely speaking, its soot. PM2.5 describes especially tiny particles, those of 2.5 micrometers or less and particularly insidious. Not only do these tiny particles cause haze, but they’re particularly invasive to human lungs.

A PM2.5 alert on a Stuttgart underpass. This and the following images by Gordon Welters for The New York Times, February 27, 2018.

What’s more, Mutter Natur can be a cruel mother: Diesels have an inherent tradeoff of NOx versus PM2.5 generation: If a diesel is optimized to operate at a higher combustion temperature, it burns off more PM2.5, but causes more NOx; and vice versa. There are control strategies mitigating each, but these too tend to have a delicate balance.

That is, the diesel isn’t environmentally friendly.

That glow atop Stuttgart’s main train station is the three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star.

The New York Times, February 27, 2018, carried an article by Katrin Bennhold, “In Germany’s Car Capital, the Unthinkable: The Right to Ban Cars.” The article notes, “The star of Daimler shines bright over Stuttgart,” and quotes Manfred Niess, a retired teacher and local environmental activist, “As soon as you arrive, you know who rules here.”

Yet, based on the German high court’s ruling, “It may soon be illegal for some to drive a Mercedes in this city, where the local soccer club plays in the Mercedes-Benz stadium.” Stuttgart is one of Germany’s most polluted cities; Düsseldorf and some 70 others are also cited as failing to maintain air quality standards set by the European Union.

Munich’s pedestrian zones include this stretch of Neuhauser Strasse leading to Marienplatz.

Germany and other EU countries have long embraced the concept of car-free pedestrian zones in city centers. However, this court-ruled ban is seen as specifically focusing on diesels and expanding clear-air perimeters. The New York Times quotes Christoph Bals, policy director of Germanwatch, “It is the latest wake-up call for the German auto industry and German politicians. And this time it might actually force them to change their ways.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel adds this to her other coalition balancing acts. What with this country’s extensive recycling, abandoning nuclear power, and subsidizing wind and solar energy, she has been called the “Climate Chancellor.”

On the other hand, The New York Times reports, “On the question of diesel bans, she has long taken the side of the industry. ‘We will use all our power to prevent such bans,’ she told Parliament ahead of elections last September.”

Maybe the opera ain’t over ’til the chancellor coughs. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. jlalbrecht64
    March 9, 2018

    It gets a bit worse even for diesel drivers. Because the fuel is a bit cheaper, and the efficiency better than an equivalently powered gasoline engine, with the exception of performance variations, the diesel version of a car is always more expensive than a similarly equipped gasoline. That situation is even stronger for used cars. There will be a lot of angry consumers who paid a premium for a diesel car if they can no longer drive into a city center.

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