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The Autobahn's Future and One-Liter Class Racing
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An Open Letter to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel
by Gifford Pinchot III, June 20, 2008

Honorable Chancellor Merkel,

Recently the Stavros Dimas, the environmental commissioner of the European Union, proposed an overall European Union speed limit that would include the German autobahn. Some fear this would violate a basic German right or block a necessary safety valve for the German psyche. On the other hand, it is unseemly for a rich nation to be spewing CO2 at such a rate.

At first it seems that banning this activity in the name of global warming and social justice is the decent thing to do. But this may not be the wisest solution if the goal is to reduce global warming. Implementing all the changes needed to avoid climate catastrophe will require broad support, including the support of the rich and powerful who love to drive fast cars. Taking away their fun without replacing it with something just as good or better won’t win their support for the necessary climate policies.

The New York Times describes a defiant driver in a highly modified 435 horsepower Porsche going 286 km/hr. What might replace that thrill?

Despite a good record of environmental responsibility as the German Chancellor, you (Angela Merkel) oppose a uniform EU speed limit, which would limit autobahn speeds. This seems wise as one may assume that the environmental benefit of reduced autobahn speed limits would not be worth spending social capital that could be better used to get more important, but less incendiary, environmental policies implemented. However, there may be a better policy than benign neglect.

Let me propose an alternative autobahn speed limit plan. Rather than a speed limit of say 130km/hr (around 81 mph), imagine a speed limit, which is the faster of
a) 130 km or
b) The fastest your car can go while burning 8 liters per 100 km (around 35 miles to the gallon).

What would happen once the nation recovered from the initial outrage? Within a few years Mercedes, BMW, Audi and even Volkswagen would produce cars that could go very fast on 8 liters / 100km – certainly over 200km/hr. Eventually these fuel efficient speedsters would gain a cachet similar to what the 435 hp Porche has today. Fuel efficiency would become part of the meaning of fast. Rich boys would still be faster, just faster in a more responsible way.

As they were passed by the new fuel-efficient fast cars, the image in people’s minds of a “fast car” would change to match those that could go fast on the autobahn. The new meaning of “fast car” and “desirable car” would support a transformation of German car industry. Germany would become the fuel efficiency technology capital of the world, giving its regular production cars a competitive advantage in a fuel-starved world.

However, let us suppose that changing the speed limit right away would be too drastic given the transitional cost of rendering current high performance automobiles obsolete. (To ease the blow, you could grandfather existing monster cars with an unlimited speed limit on Saturdays.) Still, is there a gentler way?

As a first step toward a new meaning of “fast car,” I recommend the creation and funding of a new class of racing that builds a constituency for cars that are at once fuel efficient and fast. This new racing class will encounter far less resistance than changing autobahn speed limits, will create the conditions favorable to later speed limit changes and, in the short run, will produce many of the same benefits, albeit to a lesser degree.

Let me share a vision: One-Liter Class Racing. In this race you can use any car you wish so long as it meets safety standards. The limiting factor is that contestants can only pick up one liter of fuel per pit stop. This rule both favors the development of cars that are highly fuel efficient at high speeds and creates very good TV. The TV loves pit stops.

In One-Liter Class Racing you could enter an 800 horsepower car, but while you might pass all the other cars while you were on the track, frequent pit stops would make you too slow overall. You could minimize pit stops with a super fuel-efficient 30 horsepower car, but it would probably be too slow on the track. The challenge is to get the right balance between speed and fuel efficiency and to find ways to get more of both at once.

In this vision the cars on the track publicly report their fuel supply and instantaneous fuel efficiency. Giant displays at the track show each car’s fuel situation. The same information is downloaded real time to the internet, giving fans watching on TV full access to the fuel management dilemmas.

Spectators and fans at home, as well as commentators, speculate on appropriate strategies given each car’s range, remaining fuel and position on the track. This dialog builds a sport-based fuel conservation mentality, which is far more fun than concern for fuel efficiency based on cost or guilt. And it affects rich and poor alike, a substantial advantage over carbon taxes alone.

One-Liter Class Racing could be started by private citizens putting up a prize and organizing a race. In the more advanced form, the race committee would supply one-liter canisters of fuel and a design for the part of the car that received them. Jam the canister in place and it would lock in, open and dump its fuel into the car’s tank. If necessary there could be a mandatory 10 second emptying period after which a buzzer would sound and the canister would unlock.

I imagine a One-Liter Class National Championship race with big prizes sponsored by the German government. The benefit would be to jump start a more sustainable German car industry and to promote a consciousness shift among German drivers that would generate major savings of fuel.

Inspired by One-Liter Class Racing, ordinary drivers would set fuel efficiency records between cities. Websites would grow up to keep track of the records. Berlin to Düsseldorf in a Jetta would be a class to compete in. Since there are many pairs of cities and many models of car, there would be many categories with many record holders. Creating many winners changes consciousness and generates political support. Extreme fuel efficiency would become very stylish.

As with the proposed autobahn speed limit, I see One-Liter racing driving Germany to become the fuel efficiency leaders and the German car industry having a competitive advantage much more in tune with the times. (Unless of course some good old boys from Tennessee or some California entrepreneurs start the one-quart racing class first – or the Brazilians do it with sugar cane alcohol.)

After a period of One-Liter Class Racing, the new speed limit would be possible, even fun. Fuel efficient racing would prepare the way by changing people’s conception of a fast car and stimulating the industry to build cars capable of taking advantage of the new speed limit rules.

Gifford Pinchot III is co-founder and president of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

Photo: Tesla Roadster, from

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I like these ideas. But I think your suggestion of 8 liters / 100 km is way too little. My car is eleven years old and only uses 5 liters / 100 km at a speed of 90 km/hr. I never drive faster than that these days. And you know what? Driving has become pleasant again. I don't have any stress passing cars or being afraid I'll be late. I simply start early.
I should like to think that more than ten years of technological innovation should do better than 8 liters / 100 km (even at higher speeds). But what I see is that a lot of new cars use more than mine even when driving efficiently. So we should not be playing games anymore. It's time for real action. But I realise that's hard. So indeed a new sports event with fuel limitations might just do the trick.
I'm quite sure cars are far more efficient than they used to be. We just waste that fuel on luxury and automation. And that's another difficulty we can't solve with a sports event. People don't like top give up stuff they think they have earned or deserve. Even if it's bad for our future.

Posted by: ARQ on 23 Jun 08

Being a US-emigrated German citizen I really got to appreciate the steady 65 (OK 75) mph flow on American highways even though it's fun once in a while to drive 130 mph or more back home :-)

I think Gifford's ideas are great. They might lack some practicability, I haven't heard yet of a radar gun that measures peak gas cunsumption, but he is dead-on with the cause of the issue. People need to have a benefit from being environmentally friendly. For the broad mass this benefit is less expenses on gas through fuel-efficient cars (gas costs almost $9 a gallon in Germany!). The more affluent people however, just as Gifford explained, need to be given other benefits. Similar to the Tesla Roadster, green must become more sexy, or vice versa, "not green" must become socially condemnable. Whether that will ever happen with the autobahn remains a question, as it is as holy to the Germans as whaling is to Japanese and guns are to Americans.

On a different note, this issue reminds me very much of Detroit's general resistance to higher fleet economy standards. The arguments are literally the same, protection of domestic industry, work places, and last but not least "competitive advantages".

But back to the issue: A large percentage of the German autobahn is already regulated at 80 miles or below because of the large amounts of cars in metropolitan areas. I don't have the exact statistics but it is definitely more than half of it. So there is always the backdoor of just speed-limiting most of the rest as well, essentially killing the free autobahn without ever declaring it dead ;-)

Posted by: Christoph Wienands on 24 Jun 08

Is 8 liters per 100km too rich? It may seem too generous a fuel allotment, however a relatively large number like 8 liters might be a good place to start.

The challenge is to offer the kind of people who drive high performance cars a chance, given sufficient innovation and engineering, to experience a thrill similar to what they have today. That will bring them and their influence into the game.

I imagine it would take the hope of speeds of 200 to 300km/hr to make the new fuel-efficient cars deeply appealing to today’s speed addicts. Achieving high fuel efficiency when going that fast is far more difficult than dong so at 90 km/hr.

With regard to the issue of measuring fuel efficiency at speed, I imagine basing this on the model and an annual inspection. Cars could have their top autobahn speed written on the side in large letters. Even when parked in town or in another country, having a high speed potential written on the side of one's car would be a status symbol. In addition, to make things easier for the police, cars could carry an RFID chip that broadcasts their allowable top speed.

Posted by: Gifford Pinchot on 24 Jun 08



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