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COMMENT: Dust particles, filters and sleepy officials

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

It seemed as if for five days, Germany had simply disappeared under a cloud of dust.

During that time, the republic practically talked about nothing else but dust particles and the dangers they pose to our health. The threat seemed pervasive.

The so-called experts quickly agreed that road traffic and the German auto industry are to blame. They said that manufacturers, despite knowing better, have withheld particulate filters from the nation and are pushing diesel vehicle sales to satisfy their greed.

Emissions from waste incinerators and thermal power stations, dust produced by laser printers or home heating systems suddenly didn't count anymore. Nor did those particles a smoker inhales with every drag from his cigarette or the ones he blows into the face of the person sitting opposite.

Exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles represent just about 5 percent of dust pollution in German cities. And only around half of that actually comes out of the tailpipes of diesel cars.

Still, environmental activists pounced as if the nation's fate depended on a solution to the diesel cars problem. The German Automobile Industry Association (VDA), meanwhile, watched in silence.

Immediately after the Easter holidays, Ford-Werke boss Bernhard Mattes called the VDA in Frankfurt and demanded a focused counteroffensive. But nothing happened. The VDA's usually omnipresent lobbyists remained invisible. With a few days delay, VDA president Bernd ("We need a comprehensive approach to this complex problem.") Gottschalk finally "threw" himself into the battle at the auto show in Leipzig armed with a position paper. But hysteria had already spread though the whole of Germany. It was too late for an objective argument. It is a PR disaster the extent of which is not yet known.

Germany's car dealers have already noticed that interest in diesel cars is diminishing.

And in North America, consumers are wondering if this supposed environmental hazard should be taken off the market altogether. This comes at a time when the German auto industry is putting a lot of effort and money into making diesel-powered cars acceptable in the USA again.

Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda, meanwhile, are laughing. Their hybrid cars are selling like hotcakes in the USA.

Peugeot is also in a good position. The French brand is taking every opportunity to gleefully point out that its diesel vehicles have had filters fitted as standard equipment for years.

The "stupid little filter" (Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder) threatens to ruin the "automotive springtime" the German car industry has been waiting for for so long.

VW and Mercedes are now taking the bull by the horns. They are developing solutions and strategies at full steam to launch diesel vehicles fitted with filters sooner than planned.

They don't really have an alternative. If the diesel boom in Europe should really come to an end, manufacturers can forget about their commitment to significantly lower fleet consumption and, as a result, reduce CO2 emissions on the roads.

Meanwhile, the next conflict with the eco-warriors is already in sight. The EU's guidelines for dust particulates also set strict limits for nitrogen oxide (Nox), which shares responsibility for creating holes in the ozone layer.

It is high time for the German automotive industry to wake up.

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