An American Meets the German Autobahn

© 2015 Peter Free


06 April 2015 (revised 14 April 2015)



The Autobahn seems to cater to speedy cars at the expense of fuel efficiency and highway safety


I suspect that Germany’s auto manufacturers had a prominent say in designing a highway system to provide (a) high end cars with exercise and (b) almost nothing else of obvious social value.


The Autobahn certainly works well enough when there is no traffic on it. With traffic, however, it is stressful to drive and profligately wastes fuel. And if you have the misfortune to travel it on a German vacation holiday, you will be wishing you were in a Conestoga wagon on America’s high plains 175 years ago.



How this glorious, but arguably inefficient system works


The Autobahn is usually 2 lanes (in each direction) of well-maintained road surface. Exits (Ausfahrts) are few. Exit ramps generally require significant braking due to their short length and curvy outflow. Onramps require brisk acceleration due to their frequent shortness.


In rural parts of the country there is no speed limit, although German law assigns partial liability to those traveling above 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph). Federal law also requires drivers who are not passing, to keep right.


The workability glitch is that trucks and cars pulling trailers are limited to 80 kph (50 mph). Therefore, family-oriented cars have to dart into the left lane, accelerate to pass, and then slip back into the slower right lane.


There is often a minimum 50 kph (31 mph) difference between the right and left Autobahn lanes. This frequently rises to 80 kph (50 mph) or more. Left lane Audis, BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches — with a heavy sprinkling of lesser cars (which are probably already exceeding their tires’ speed limitations) — are moving at twice the speed of the right lane.



If you think I am kidding


Look at this YouTube video of two cars reaching 218 mph (350.8 kph) — during daylight hours in moderate Autobahn traffic:, 350 km/h (218 mph) 918 chasing Koenigsegg Agera R on German Autobahn Porsche vs Koenigsegg, YouTube (12 April 2015)


Alex Lloyd tells us a little more about the clip here:


Alex Lloyd, Watch a Porsche 918 Spyder Hit 218 mph While Chasing the Koenigsegg Agera R, Yahoo (13 April 2015)


In even moderate Autobahn traffic, there is no such thing as driving at a somewhat constant speed


Fuel is wasted and brakes and engines worn by continually having to radically change velocity, unless one is content to creep along with the trucks and trailers.


The Autobahn works well in rural areas. I am not convinced that it does so elsewhere.



Stau is the German word for traffic jam


Backups are so common that the word appears on electronic Autobahn signs. Germany evidently (and understandably) resists the idea of expanding its highway system to accommodate holiday traffic. Given how many weeks folks have off each year, these jams quickly become a continuing annoyance. And unlike the United States, Germany’s highway system does not provide relatively efficient ways to go around predictable problem spots.



German drivers are better than their American equivalents — they have to be


Given the Autobahn lanes’ speed differential, one has to be constantly alert.


Ordinary German highways are often very narrow and brake-stomping curvy. Think West Virginia and northern California Coast Range. Roads are often snowy, icy, wet or leaf-covered — as well as frequently blind and sometimes cobbled — and surprisingly frequently peopled with the odd pedestrian or wheelchair traveler.


Speed limits are high by American standards — like 100 kph (62 mph) where an average of 80 kph (50 mph) is arguably pushing it.


These conditions breed driving skill, which visiting Americans often do not have. The US military says that Spangdahlem Air Base troops have the highest peacetime accident and injury driving rate for US personnel anywhere in the world.



German driving culture


Germans take the left lane restriction (for passing only) seriously. They cut right quickly, leaving less of safety gap than many Americans do.


In rain, this can be annoying. One’s windshield goes blind with road splash and following distance has to be adjusted accordingly. Many Germans also seem to have little regard for hydroplaning. A noticeable portion drive between 137 kph (85 mph) and 161 kph (100 mph) in heavy rain and low visibility.


On the other hand, German truckers seem to be noticeably more safety conscious than their American counterparts. They only rarely tailgate and virtually all of them observe speed limits. In snow and on ice, they slow down to sensible speeds. Truck traffic, although noticeably more voluminous than in the United States, is not so annoyingly hazard-making.



The moral? — Germans drive well, but their Autobahn is not greenly-inspired


For an allegedly environmentally conscious country, Germany’s Autobahn wastes significant amounts of fuel with its lack of speed limits and constant accelerating and braking.


Driving long distances is unnecessarily tiring by (western) United States Interstate standards. Even a measly 6 or 7 hour German drive generally becomes a tiresome endeavor, especially for someone like me who drives for gas mileage and vehicle longevity. The kilometers do not fly by in relaxed fashion. One has to pay so much attention to speedsters in the left lane and slow-going traffic in the right that looking at the lovely landscape is noticeably compromised. Interminable, slower-than-walking traffic jams compound the irritation.


With rural exceptions, I do not much enjoy the Autobahn. However, I understand why Germans and race-oriented drivers do. That said, I would like to see a study of the comparative car longevity and fuel use between Germany and the United States. I suspect that Germany is paying a noticeable amount in depleted resources for its Autobahn supercar driving culture.