COMMENT: A rethink on energy is long overdue

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

There is some nasty gossip going around that oil companies are testing German auto drivers' limits. Nowadays a liter of diesel costs 1 euro. A liter of premium gasoline, which will fuel a modern medium-sized car driven at moderate speed for approximately 12 kilometers, costs 1.17 euros.

Car drivers seem to react fairly calmly to the record-high gasoline prices. They moan, but they fill up their cars nonetheless. Then they drive to one of the popular holiday destinations in the north or the south of Europe.

But there was one novelty to be observed along Europe's busy main holiday routes. There were lines at relatively scarce liquid gas pumps. And demand for green "bio" diesel was so high that even gasoline stations in Emsland in northern Germany were sold out shortly after the start of the holiday season.

Car drivers seem to have accepted that fuel prices will continue to rise. China's enormous fuel consumption, North Americans' wastefulness and dwindling global oil reserves are the reason a liter of gasoline or diesel is turning into a precious commodity.

Green tax or not, I forecast that within the next five years we will have to pay between 100 and 150 euros to fill a tank, depending on the type of fuel. There is no doubt that the age of crude oil is coming to an end.

And how is the German auto industry responding? It builds ever stronger high-performance vehicles. Driving pleasure has a higher priority than the protection of natural resources, acceleration is more important than CO2 emissions.

Of course, the total consumption level of cars manufactured in Germany has dropped by 20 percent during the past 10 years. The average consumption of all DaimlerChrysler autos built in Europe was reduced to 7.35 liters per 100 kilometers, thanks to Smart and despite Maybach.

However, more than 90 percent of the energy needed to power the vehicles still comes from crude oil. Hydrogen-fueled autos are still at an experimental stage. The fuel cell will be ready for series production in 10 years at the earliest.

In the meantime, temporary solutions are needed such as the bi-fuel natural-gas engines that manufacturers such as Opel, Volvo, Fiat and recently also Mercedes-Benz are offering. Currently they are selling these vehicles primarily to energy providers.

But it doesn't have to be this way. At a price of 68 cents for the amount of liquid gas equivalent to a liter of gasoline, natural-gas vehicles have now also become affordable for private customers, despite their high acquisition cost. Even more so when such vehicles are being subsidized in some federal states and communities.

Hybrid engines, which are a costly mix between combustion engine and electric propulsion, also still have financial disadvantages. German manufacturers have been struggling against this concept for a long time and prefer to focus on diesel technology.

But the success of the second generation of the Toyota Prius not only in the US and Japan but also in Germany and Switzerland - the car is sold out there - proves that hybrid engines have a future.

German manufacturers should not leave this technology area to foreign producers but should take the lead here. And politicians should find ways to give this environmentally friendly technology the support it needs. The German government, after all, has declared 2004 the "year of innovations."

A long-overdue automobile tax reform would be a first step. No longer should engine capacity be the basis of assessment. Instead, like in several other European countries, pollutant emissions and energy consumption should determine at what rate a car is taxed.

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