“One moment more, Mr. Executioner.” Like Madame du Barry going to the scaffold, the German car industry is asking for a respite for its gasoline engines, which the European Commission has condemned to die in 2035. At least that’s what can be understood from the dramatic turn of events in Brussels, which saw Berlin threaten to stop endorsing the cessation of combustion engines planned for that date. The political signature was supposed to be a formality, but it has become a diplomatic crisis.
Of course, the liberal German minister of transport, Volker Wissing, a great defender of the powerful German car industry, has taken advantage of a political change in Italy to make the threat, but his attitude reawakens the old, never-ending debate between transition and rupture.
Should gasoline engines be endlessly improved, equipped with so-called “clean” fuel, or banned altogether? When it comes to innovation, the new, in this case the electric car, always tries to kill the old to replace it. This does not always work and often takes longer than expected. But when environmental constraints push politicians to speed up the tempo, the response of manufacturers must follow. But at what pace? Too fast, and customers don’t follow, too slow, and competitors take over.
Most carmakers have already scheduled their combustion engine production to end by 2030 or earlier. But some major German exporters, such as BMW or Mercedes, and even Volkswagen, want to continue selling their sedans around the world since only Europe has set the cut-off date so soon. Hence the idea of extending the engines beyond 2035.
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The current events in Brussels are focused on the automobile industry, but the question of transition is one that haunts every industrialist, from the steel industry to the oil industry, and all of society in between that is involved in this great upheaval. For example, the major American oil companies have imagined that their salvation does not lie in getting out of oil and gas, but in capturing carbon, which would allow them to continue their activities until the end of time. This is an illusion. The reality, beyond environmental constraints, is that electrification, an indispensable companion of the digital society, is becoming widespread, from the steel furnace to the jackhammer, via transport. And, in the latter sector, the transition is looking more and more like a real breakthrough.