Unlimited Autobahn Speeds Could Be Doomed by Gas Prices

Going slower burns less fuel—which, at today’s prices, is a desirable outcome.

byNeil Briscoe| PUBLISHED May 20, 2022 1:30 PM
Unlimited Autobahn Speeds Could Be Doomed by Gas Prices
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It genuinely is twilight as I nose out of the parking garage at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. It’s a sunny evening in early May, and the last golden wisps of light are shading the sky to the west as I turn south. Physically, my destination is Stuttgart, but philosophically, I’m seeking another time. A time before the twilight of the Autobahn.

The plan was a simple one. Collect a fast car, head out to one of the most historic stretches of road in all of Germany—the Frankfurt-to-Damrstadt Autobhan—and experience, maybe for the last time, the sheer thrill of driving with no legal speed limit. The last time? Oh, yes—sadly, the end is nigh for this kind of driving, with environmental factors likely being the final nail in the coffin.

The end of the unlimited-speed Autobahn has been a recurring theme in German politics and the German car industry for decades now. The famed highways are not limit-free across the board—many sections have 62-mph (100 kph) or 75-mph (120 kph) limits. Thankfully, there are still many stretches where you will pass that famed round, white sign with its three slender, angled black lines. Those lines set you free—free to press your foot to the floor. Hard. 

So I do. Heading out of Frankfurt and south, past Darmstadt, takes you past one of the most historically significant stretches of Autobahn. In 1938, in a streamlined Auto Union race car, Bernd Rosemeyer—one of the brightest stars of 1930s racing—died on this very stretch of highway while trying to set a speed record of more than 268 mph. His car, likely tugged by a gust of wind, careered out of control and Rosemeyer, the 1936 European Grand Prix champion, was flung from the cockpit as the car smashed into a bridge parapet.

The German Autobahn, the world's first truly modern road network, built in the 1930s. A section of the road between Ulm and Stuttgart.

I whistle past the small stone memorial to Rosemeyer, to be found in the trees surrounding a rest stop just off the A5 Autobahn. I’m not going as fast as he was—not even close—but it feels about appropriate to flash past, rather than stop and stand in gloomy silence.

My choice of car is also, distantly, related to Rosemeyer’s steed. A Volkswagen Golf R estate, it’s fantastically more technologically advanced than the record-setting Auto Union, but there is a faint family lineage, via Audi, between the two cars.

A Golf R for the Job

You can buy a Golf R hatchback in the United States, with prices starting from $44,090, but sadly this wagon variant is limited to Europe. Clearly, our SUV-addled brains can’t cope with the thought of a car that has a practical 21.5-cubic foot boot (that’s 611 litres, for metric fans) but which also has 315 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque, all-wheel drive, a trick rear differential that comes with a built-in drift mode, and which can rip a zero-to-60-mph run in just 4.7 seconds. Yes, the interior screens and controls are as frustrating as they are in a regular Golf, but with my eyes focused firmly on the road ahead, that’s less of an issue right now.

Is it just an up-gunned GTI? Kind of, yes. Traditionally, the R has been seen as the faster, more high-tech cousin to the GTI, but one that’s a little less engaging to drive in the corners. That has changed with the eighth-generation Golf—the current GTI is actually a little bland to drive, while the R, with its advanced diff and extra few horsepower, feels more lively.

Liveliness is not the characteristic I seek right now, however. Not with the digital speedo creeping up to 240 kph (148 mph). The R will go faster, but there’s a sticker on the dashboard asking me not to, so in the interests of personal liability, I don’t. It matters little—240 kph feels more than rapid enough, especially with the light starting to fade. The Autobahn is three lanes wide here, so it feels a touch safer to do these kinds of speeds than it will later, on narrower two-lane sections. Here, at least, the heavy trucks and RVs are corralled further off to your right, which feels a touch more comfortable. 

I don’t sit long at the R’s suggested maximum. My right foot stays pinned for just a few minutes to confirm that it will do the speed, before settling back down to what seems like a more sensible cruising speed, staying between 160 kph and 180 kph (99 mph and 111 mph). With sufficient light still in the sky for decent visibility and a bone-dry, largely empty road, doing these high sustained speeds feels entirely safe. Natural, even. The Golf is unperturbed no matter what I do, happy to bolt forward on a surge of power, with the DSG gearbox kicking down after a momentary delay, and an entertaining stereo-augmented growl from the engine if you’ve remembered to push the little italicized blue “R” button on the steering wheel to select “Race” mode. 

At this point, you can see the validity of the limit-free Autobahn concept as the time-to-destination clock ticks rapidly downwards, and you get to decide exactly how fast is fast enough for you. Truly, the Autobahn is the land of the free, and the home of the brave (bravery is definitely needed if you’re going to mix it in the outside lane with the apparently endless fleet of RS Audis and M-badged BMWs that are also hammering through the gathering night.)

A land for much longer, though? Likely not. 

Autobahn Under Fire

A recent, much-publicized run by the owner of  Bugatti Chiron, who stretched his car to a silly 259 mph (417 kph), has reawakened the debate about putting blanket speed limits on the Autobahn network. 

The stunt was criticized by the Bundesministerium für Digitales und Verkehr—or the BMDV—Germany’s federal transport ministry, which reminded drivers that: “Anyone participating in traffic must behave in such a way that no other person is harmed, endangered or obstructed or inconvenienced more than is unavoidable under the circumstances. The law requires drivers only drive so fast that the vehicle is constantly under control.”

Is safety a problem on the Autobahn? That’s debatable. According to Statista, the Autobahn network ranks mid-table for fatalities per 1,000 km. Bulgaria ranks worst, with 83.1 deaths per 1,000 km, and has a highway speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph). Ireland, with its 120 kph (75 mph) limit, ranks best with just 5.6 deaths per 1,000 km. Germany’s figure is 30.2, putting it between Greece and Poland. 

However, the figures don’t quite tell the full story. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that there were 0.95 fatal accidents per billion km driven on Autobahn sections with posted speed limits, while the sections with no limit saw 1.67 fatal accidents, a massive 75 percent jump. 

There has been a call for limits from a somewhat unexpected source. Four-times F1 world champ Sebastian Vettel has said he backs Autobahn limits. “There [are] accidents in Germany we have because we don’t have a speed limit. So if it helps to save only one person from being injured or one person’s life, then I think it’s a no-brainer,” Vettel said. 

He went on, “Very often it gets confused with a freedom that people have, that we don’t have a speed limit in Germany. Now, honestly, I don’t feel un-free when I come to Turkey or when I come to the U.S. or to the UK or any other country where there is a speed limit. Anybody who wants to go fast should do so in a place where it’s safe to do so, which in that case would be the race track. Obviously, I get very excited by going fast, otherwise, I would have chosen a different job, but I also see that it makes far more sense to do so on a track where you can judge, you can experience and test your limits and not put it to the risk of other people around it.”

The safety issue is possibly something of a red herring in this case, though. Not because slowing things down wouldn’t make a useful contribution to road safety, but because there’s a much bigger elephant in the limit-free room: fuel prices. 

How the Autobahn Fits Into Our Future

What will likely finally kill the limitless Autobahn are environmental concerns. The German Green Party, which has been a member of various coalition governments in Germany since the 1980s, has proposed a 130-kph (80 mph) limit on all Autobahn sections starting next year. So far, the German government has demurred, but increasing environmental pressures will doubtlessly exact a toll at some point. The pump price of petrol and diesel in Germany already sits above €2 per liter, which works out at about $8 per U.S. gallon. Given that my drive in the Golf R returned fuel economy of just 26.9 mpg, you can see where that graph goes.

Germany’s emissions from transport have not fallen since 1990, and the Greens estimate that the blanket Autobahn limit, in concert with actions such as quotas for electric and plug-in hybrid cars and fuel tax increases, could deliver as much as half of the transport emissions cut that the country has planned. 

The inexorable rise of electric cars will probably deal the final, irrecoverable blow to the Autobahn. Put simply, until and unless someone creates a big battery that can be recharged in a few minutes, and installs sufficient rapid chargers to allow people to do just that, driving an EV at high Autobahn speeds is a losing game. 

To prove the point, the morning after my high-speed Golf drive, I took a Mercedes–EQS 450+ electric luxury car for a short sprint up the Autobahn from Stuttgart. Needless to say, with 329 hp from its single, rear-mounted electric motor, the EQS wasn’t shy about hitting some classical Autobahn velocities, but if you’re keeping an eye on the battery charge gauge, you won’t be long in backing off. Even with that massive 107-kWh battery, the big Benz soon started to run short of available range. 

There’s an ineluctable math in the relationship between speed, distance, and time in an EV—go too fast and you’ll start costing more time than you’ll save because you’ll end up having to stop and charge up. When all German drivers are driving electric, an Autobahn speed limit will probably become self-enforcing, as at anything over 120 kph (75 mph), you’re just burning too many electrons too quickly. 

Indeed, there’s an argument that the Autobahn is, almost like some sort of vast concrete-topped AI, already self-enforcing its own speed limits. That high-speed run in the Golf R was done late in the day when the road was quiet and clear. Spool forward 36 hours, where I’m making the return run in midday traffic, and it’s clear that Germany’s car culture is a victim of its own success. There are just too many cars around, and not enough space between them, to allow me to get up much of a head of speed. 

So, I spend the drive mostly hovering between 100 kph (62 mph) and 120 kph (75 mph), with an occasional brief foray up to 160 kph (99 mph). A series of short, officially limited sections, plus some road work, and the constant flow of slow-moving trucks taking up the inside lane effectively limits me to what most would consider a sensible speed. A more frugal speed, too—on this run in the Golf R, I average a much more agreeable 37.6 mpg.

While the sun hasn’t fully set on the limit-free Autobahn yet, the time when the last rays of light disappear can’t be far away. If you can, get to Germany and enjoy the moment while it lasts. If you can’t, try and at least convince your local VW dealer to import a Golf R estate for you. You won’t regret pulling off either plan. 

Neil Briscoe is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Irish Times and CompleteCar. He is based out of Belfast.

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