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Auto Industry

Car club's crash could jump start transportation policy reform

A manipulation scandal endangers the ADAC auto club's influence on German transportation policy. Critics hope that a reform of the lobby group could also reform Germany's future traffic policy.

Speed limits on German roads, cutting back tax advantages for company cars and green environmental zones in cities - the ADAC (General German Car Club) was - and still is - against them. The group has come out against environmental friendly projects planned by the German government. The ADAC is the biggest automobile club in Europe and claims to represent the interests of its nearly 19 million members.

The Munich-based ADAC's biggest advantage is its nationwide fleet of mechanics, which the group advertises as "Yellow Angels," that help club members when they've broken down. The mechanics assist some 4.2 million motorists a year. Through several in-house companies the club also offers full service insurance packages for automobiles as well as travel insurance. Additionally it offers holiday tours, books, road maps and other publications.

But the powerful lobby is based on wishful thinking, according to Anton Hofreiter, a traffic expert and parliamentary group head of the Green party. "Most of its members don't see the ADAC as a club in which they participate, but as a service company."

Anton Hofreiter
(Foto: Stefan Kaminski)

Hofreiter said the ADAC scandal is a chance for policy reforms

The Berlin government, which used to listen to the ADAC and granted it considerable influence, should no longer be impressed by the ADAC's membership numbers, Hofreiter told DW. "The [governing coalition of] SPD and CDU/CSU sometimes listen too much to lobby groups and maybe this case shows them that they don't always have to," Hofreiter said.

Loyal members and critical companions

The services offered by ADAC appear more important to its members that after the - confirmed - manipulation accusation. An external audit found that the club rigged the results of its annual awards. Allegedly only 15,000 members have left the club since the allegations were made public. The group's head, however, has resigned.

Members of the German car industry have distanced themselves from the ADAC. A Volkswagen spokesperson said it had no influence on the ADAC award for Germany's most popular car - also called "Yellow Angel." It is awarded by a reader's poll.

BMW said there was no connection between its advertisements in the ADAC member magazine "Motorwelt" and the result of the vote for the "Yellow Angel" award. Both companies announced that they intend to return their awards.

Nevertheless the ADAC is still an important contact for the car manufacturers. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said that it is important for the ADAC to regain the lost confidence.

Comfortable silence

ADAC logo on blue background
(Foto: Tobias Hase/dpa)

The ADAC needs reforms after the manipulation scandal

The powerful German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) has been noticeably silent. Other than a short statement shortly after the manipulation accusation concerning the "Yellow Angel Award" it did not comment on the allegations made against the ADAC. The analysis of the crisis is the job of the ADAC, a VDA spokesperson said.

Politicians have also made few detailed call for change at the ADAC, which some observes say allows the club to play down the scandal. The ADAC does not seem ready to get rid of any personnel in addition to its president, Peter Meyer, who resigned Monday, and its communication director and editor-in-chief of "Motorwelt," Michael Ramstetter, who left in January.

Car expert Stefan Bratzel from the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach and Ferdinand Dudenhöffer from the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen welcomed Meyer's resignation but also called for more far-reaching changes in ADAC's personnel.

Hofreiter, the traffic expert from the Green party, said the ADAC should not get away with this strategy.

"It is a very big organization and there is always the risk that they sit the problem out," he said. "But first of all, this wouldn't be wise and second, the pressure has to be maintained so that they get their business in order."

A new start on several levels

president of the ADAC Peter Meyer
(Foto: Horst Galuschka)

Many critics thinks that Peter Meyer's resignation is not enough

The ADAC decided an advisory council will scrutinize the internal structure and address the shortcomings. Jürgen Heraeus was presented as the first member of the advisory council. Heraeus has been the chairman of UNICEF Germany since 2008 and managed to revamp UNICEF's battered reputation in Germany after a funding scandal. The similar task at the ADAC seems to be comparably demanding.

The importance of the ADAC in Germany can be measured by the scope the reforms Hofreiter said were possible in the wake of the manipulation scandal.

"The best case would be showing it is possible to make a modern transportation policy that no longer relies on big, gas-guzzling cars but on cars that are sustainable over the long-term," he said. "There is the chance to modernize the entire transportation policy."

It's hard to imagine that car manufacturers like Audi, BMW Mercedes or Porsche want such a policy. After all they make the biggest profit with large sedans and SUVs. But the Green party politician is optimistic. "Of course at the moment the carmakers make the biggest profits with traditional products but the clever and foresighted in the car industry know that certain developments in the car industry have no future," he said.

But if the new structures in the ADAC will achieve or at least accelerate a rethinking in the transport policy is questionable.

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