In Germany, blue-chip companies go green

Lufthansa and Mercedes-Benz are making sustainable mobility a priority.

By OREN KESSLER
January 7, 2012 22:26
A Lufthansa airplane.

Lufthansa airplane 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of Lufthansa)

FRANKFURT – These days everything seems to be going green. The environmentally conscious live in green homes and hold green jobs, consume green energy and eat green food. So too in travel and transportation, as the perils of fuel dependency and environmental degradation spur developments in sustainable (or in other words, green) mobility.

One of today’s leading innovators of sustainable mobility technology is Germany, where multinational companies like Lufthansa and Mercedes-Benz are forging a 21st-century transportation model that combines performance, convenience and environmental sustainability.

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Lufthansa is Germany’s national airline and the largest in Europe (and fourth largest in the world) as measured by passenger volume. It is also the largest-volume foreign carrier to Israel – surpassing British Airways around a decade ago – with 14 weekly flights to its main hub of Frankfurt and five to its secondary hub Munich.

The centerpiece of Lufthansa’s sustainable mobility strategy is the A380 – the long-awaited Airbus jet that is the world’s largest wide-body passenger airliner. Lufthansa is one of only a handful of airlines to operate the A380 (the others are Air France, Qantas, Emirates and three in Southeast Asia).

The German carrier first flew the A380 last year and has since expanded its fleet to 17, including routes from Frankfurt to Miami, Beijing, Tokyo and Singapore. No airlines currently fly the A380 into Ben-Gurion Airport, but Lufthansa officials said they wouldn’t rule out such a possibility in the future. In 2006 Israel’s national airport completed renovations that would allow wide-body aircraft like the A380 to use its runways in the future.

The A380 is Airbus’ pride and joy, the product of research going back the better part of two decades. The most fuel-efficient wide-body aircraft on the market (30 percent more efficient than its rivals), its passenger capacity is also 40% higher than a Boeing 747. That capacity – 525 people with a standard seating layout – means fewer aircraft in the sky and less fuel burned. The A380 also reduces noise pollution, generating half the noise of a 747 on take-off and three to four times less on landing.

“The A380 is a game-changing aircraft,” said Airbus director of product marketing Richard Carcailliet, echoing the company’s motto, “It takes an A380 to compete with an A380.”

But Lufthansa’s green strategy extends beyond its choice of jetliners. Its high-speed rail partnership with Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail company, means fewer planes in the skies and as a result, lower fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emission.

Lufthansa no longer flies the 150-kilometer Frankfurt-Cologne route at all. Instead, it dedicates a rail car on 13 high-speed rail lines in each direction between the two cities. A similar setup is available between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, though planes still ply that route daily.

Travelers to Frankfurt Airport – Germany’s main international hub – may make the short trip by foot to its Fernbarnhof, or long-distance rail station. There they will be given an airline-style boarding pass, complete with a Lufthansa flight number, and check in their bags. It’s all designed to make passengers feel as if they were flying.

This is no jet, however, but a 300-kilometer per hour fast rail dubbed AIRail. With a travel time from Frankfurt Airport to downtown Cologne of under an hour, passengers have not only done their part for the environment, but saved that most precious commodity to any modern-day traveler – time.

Cologne is best known for its eponymous cathedral, a UN World Heritage site believed to house the relics of the Three Wise Men whom Christian tradition says visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem and proclaimed him Messiah.

Stuttgart too has its shrines for the faithful: the headquarters of celebrated car makers Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

The former has made tentative strides into hybrid and electric vehicles, launching a Cayenne Hybrid SUV last year and announcing plans for a hybrid version of its popular Panamera coupe. It is, however, the Stuttgart stalwart Mercedes – credited with building the first-ever automobile in 1886 – that has made sustainable mobility a keystone of its development strategy.

The company currently offers 128 models featuring the range of eco-efficient technologies it collectively refers to as BlueEfficiency.

One of the currently available technologies is engines that run on fuel powered by a combination of gasoline and natural gas, thereby producing lower and cleaner emissions at reduced cost. Another is BlueTec, a nitrogen oxide-reducing “clean diesel” technology, and BlueDirect, a system of lower-consumption V6 and V8 engines.

Mercedes has other projects in the pipeline. One of the most promising is FCell, or fuel-cell, technology that eschews fossil fuels like diesel and gasoline. Instead, hydrogen fuel – which many experts believe offers the greatest potential for sustainable mobility – undergoes a reaction with oxygen and is converted into electrical energy inside a fuel container, or “cell.”

Fuel-cell technology is zero-emissions and produces no greenhouses gases – the only engine “exhaust” is steam and heat.

Going one step further, Mercedes is developing what it calls E-Cell technology – an innovative fully-electric-drive system boasting a range of over 200 kilometers. ECell models remain in the planning stage, but the company’s continued investment in the technology shows it’s confident electric cars have a viable future.

If that weren’t enough, Mercedes is introducing an entirely new line, the F-Class, in which each model will feature hybrid technology.

The F-800 concept car, unveiled at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show, is an upper-range sedan powered by hybrid technology that has remarkably low fuel consumption (2.9 l/km) and rock-bottom CO2 emissions (68 g/km). The electric-drive variant is powered by fuel-cell technology, leaving only water vapor in its wake.

Rail was king in the 19th century, while the 20th belonged to the automobile and jet airliner. The 21st century could be the age in which each of these technologies are not only improved upon but rendered friendlier to the world we live in. Leading that effort could be Germany, the birthplace of the automobile and, more than a century later, still a leader in global transportation innovation.

The writer was a guest of Lufthansa.


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