Out on der Autobahn

Updated May 6, 2013

speedI just got back from a Daimler Trucks press tip trip to Gaggenau, Germany to see the North American unveiling of the new DT12 automated manual truck transmission. It was the first of two Daimler trips this month: The second comes along in two weeks, when I’ll fly to Dusseldorf to see the latest incarnation of the company’s successful Sprinter van, with a revamped look and an all-new powertrain.

My trip this week was a fine one all the way around, and it was extremely interesting to be in the Mercedes-Benz’s heartland.

A quick aside: Mercedes-Benz was formed in a merger between Germany’s two biggest auto-makers, Stuttgart-based Daimler and Manheim-based Benz, way back in 1926. And even though that hugely successful merger is now closing in on its 100th anniversary, our hosts told us that Manheim still maintains a Benz bias, while the folks in Stuttgart feel Mercedes is really the stronger of the two brands.

Because of the investment in time and travel you have to make to go overseas on a press trip, the hosts usually try to add in some extra time for a bit of sight-seeing. But even if they don’t, you tend to spend a lot of time running around from one plant or facility to the other. And in Germany, that means getting on the world-famous Autobahn.

The Autobahn has become a bit legendary in the States: What American, sitting on the roadside fuming while the highway patrolman writes up a speeding ticket, hasn’t dreamed of running down the open road at whatever speed fits your mood without having to worry about Smokey pointing a radar gun at you?

And while it’s true that you can still put the pedal to the metal in Germany and speed to your heart’s delight, the reality is that this expression of personal freedom comes with some rather significant losses in freedom from the trucks those high-flying Mercedes and BMWs share the road with.

To start with, getting a driver’s license in Germany is a much more detailed and intensive process than here in the States. German kids get their licenses in stages. So you actually have to be rated and approved to drive at high speed on the Autobahn.

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And the no-speed-limit rule doesn’t apply to trucks. Trucks are strictly limited to a top speed of 80 khm – about 55 mph – and there is zero tolerance for exceeding that speed limit.

Additionally, although all Autobahns are six lanes, trucks are, by law, required to stay in the far right lanes at all times – except to pass. And once they’ve passed another vehicle, they must immediately return to the far right lane. And under no conditions may they ever enter and drive in the far left lane, which is a passing lane reserved for high-speed driving.

The Autobahn as a concept works because along with these rules and very strict penalties for breaking them, the German drivers exhibit a high degree of discipline on the road. For example, when they come to a section with posted speed limits (usually near a town or a tunnel, for example) they immediately hit the brakes and begin a rapid deceleration to the posted speed. Most American drivers either ignore decreasing speed limit signs as long as they can, or simply take their foot off the gas and coast gradually down to the new speed.

Trucks are banned from the Autobahn during weekends as well to allow German car drivers to move around easier and get the mountains and ski or down to the lakes for a day on the shore.

You don’t see many trucks on the road at all on Saturday. But you see none at all on Sunday. That’s because with a few, very precise, exceptions, trucks are banned from the Autobahn completely that day. Saturday evening, by 10 pm, all trucks have to be off the road, and aren’t allow to roll again until 10 pm Sunday night. Truck stops and other roadside stopping points fill up with trucks and the drivers take a mandatory 24-hour rest break (with a good bit of beer-drinking and carousing thrown in for good measure, I’m told). All in all, the system works well. I was told by one of our drivers on this trip that crashes are rare – but they tend to be spectacular when they do occur.

It’s a rush roaring down the freeway at over 100 miles an hour – especially when a police car passes you going even faster without so much as a glance in your direction. It would never work here. And I wonder how much longer it will last in Germany, where roads are becoming increasingly congested. But I’m glad I got to see it for myself before it finally fades away.

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