The box would gather key performance data on the moments before a crash so that investigators could determine what went wrong. Although some car makers and insurers rely on driving data to guide some decisions, Germany could soon be among the first to make black boxes an official requirement on automated vehicles.
That’s not the only measure the country has proposed in recent months concerning the future of the auto business. In fact, analysts say that Germany is bent on leading the industry into its next chapter — one that takes the country’s decades-old reputation for top-notch engineering and adds automation, clean fuels and technology to the list.
Much of this frenzy of activity is driven by rising competition in the United States and Japan, said Joe Lu, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
“The earlier you are to market — the closer you are to [being] first — the more you become highly associated with that technology,” Lu said.
Companies that successfully claim that mantle may be be in a better position to out-innovate others, particularly as governments clamp down on emissions and shifts in energy technologies force manufacturers to adapt to new circumstances.
Germany’s push enjoys support from the highest ranks of government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in April vowed to speed up the development of self-driving car technology by loosening regulations and paving the way for public testing. That same month, Merkel’s government established a new set of financial incentives to give consumers thousands of dollars in rebates for purchasing a fully electric car or plug-in hybrid. And some officials have gone further, calling for an end to the sale of all fossil fuel-based cars by 2030.
Many German automakers, spurred by pressure from rivals such as Tesla, GM and Ford, are setting ambitious goals for themselves. BMW has promised to deliver a fully self-driving vehicle within the next five years, keeping pace with the many other automakers working on similar technology. The company recently announced that it will sell the same batteries from its electric vehicle, the i3, as a standalone home battery pack in a nod to the Powerwall, a competing product from Tesla. Germany’s Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, is also producing home and car batteries, and this spring announced plans to build a new $543 million battery factory.
German automakers “really weren’t doing enough in this sector, and now they’re playing catch-up,” said Al Bedwell, the director of global powertrain for LCM Automotive, a market research firm.
But no German manufacturer appears to be doing more to reposition itself than Volkswagen, whose scandal last year showing the company was cheating on U.S. emissions tests appears to have jump-started a new phase in the company’s electric vehicle efforts. VW announced plans last month to debut more than 30 new electric vehicles by 2025 and to expand its investment in battery technology, digitalization and self-driving cars.
That target does not offer VW “a whole heck of a lot of time,” Lu said.
Although analysts expect diesel and gasoline cars to remain the lion’s share of sales for the foreseeable future, VW’s strategy reflects the automaker’s bet that the industry’s future lies in emerging technologies.
“There’s been a clear shift of emphasis in the messages they’re putting out after the VW crisis. I think a lot of the electrification was already in the pipeline before what happened last October, but what we’re hearing now is a lot more on that,” Bedwell said.
Volkswagen’s settlement with the U.S. government also calls for investing billions of dollars in what many analysts regard as a key technology for the adoption of electric cars: the charging infrastructure that will allow drivers to travel for as long and as far as their counterparts who drive gas guzzlers.
“This is what it looks like when a massive corporation whose reputation was built on trust and belief in the integrity of a brand seeks to battle its way back into a changing market,” wrote Timmons Roberts, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a blog post last month.
Some countries are beginning much further ahead than Germany, at least when it comes to electric-vehicle adoption. In Norway, electric cars accounted for 6.2 percent of all new cars sold in 2013, according to a report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The Netherlands was close behind at 4.2 percent. Germany ranked seventh, at a paltry 0.2 percent. (By comparison, the same figure for the United States stands at less than 1 percent.)
Other non-European automakers are also leaping into high-tech solutions. Beyond the research on automated vehicles being done by U.S. firms, Japanese companies such as Honda and Toyota have invested resources into fields such as battery technology and robotics.
But as the case of Volkswagen suggests, German automakers feel renewed pressure to lead the industry through its next iteration. Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW hold 15 percent of the global market share for light vehicles, according to LCM Automotive, a position the automakers will be keen to maintain, if not grow, as electric vehicles become more widely adopted. And if history is any indication, Germany’s engineering prowess and industrial fortitude may again work in the industry’s favor.
“The German industry is on the one hand proud of its history, but on the other hand knows exactly why it has been so successful: They reinvented themselves every decade,” said Eckehart Rotter, a spokesman for the Berlin-based German Association of the Automotive Industry.
“This is a real worldwide competition going on, and it’s a matter of speed but it’s also a matter of who is giving the customer the best solution,” Rotter said. “It’s not the question who will be the first one, but who will be the best one.”