Germans have a collective love both of the diesel engine and of banning things—this is the country, mind you, where it is illegal to hand-wash a car on a Sunday. Now those two passions are colliding following a landmark court case that looks as if it could prevent the majority of the country’s diesel-powered cars from entering cities.
While the diesel engine was a German invention (the compression-ignition system was created by Rudolf Diesel in 1897), it seems that nobody is rooting for the home team these days. Sales of diesel-powered passenger vehicles in Deutschland are already in steep decline, but now a court has determined that towns and cities with poor air quality should prevent diesels from entering. This isn’t an entirely new thing; most German conurbations already have Umwelt (environmental) zones that bar cars incapable of passing the Euro 4 emissions test from entering them without risk of a sizable fine. But, if imposed, these new restrictions will dramatically expand that circumstance and could result in cities banning diesel cars that not only can pass both the Euro 4 and Euro 5 tests but even the latest Euro 6 emissions standards.
The case was brought to the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig by environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), which sued the local authorities in Stuttgart and Dusseldorf to make them take action after air quality within their borders was found to be deficient. Both NOx gases and carbon particulates were measured to be in excess of European Union limits. Diesel engines, especially, struggle to control those two pollutants.
The judge found for DUH, and now the organization says it expects restrictions on the use of Euro 4 cars—which were sold as recently as 2009—later this year. It further says that bans on Euro 5 cars (sold until 2014) could follow in 2019. The group also is lobbying to force manufacturers to retrofit improved emissions control systems onto current-spec Euro 6 diesel vehicles after testing showed that some of them exceeded their legal laboratory emissions by up to 2000 percent when measured in real-world use.
Germany currently has 45.8 million cars registered, according to the Teutonically thorough Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt website, with just over 15 million of those burning diesel fuel and a majority of those built to the older Euro 4 and 5 standards. Germans like to keep their cars a long time; the average age of a vehicle in the country is 9.3 years. That means millions of owners may soon be forced to avoid driving into major cities or even to scrap their immaculate, well-maintained cars.