Riding along the Autobahn

When I traveled to Berlin last month, it was in the upper compartment of a double-decker bus. From this vantage point, I could see almost everything along the way but there were two things that really caught my interest.

One is the plethora of renewable energy sources in Germany’s countryside. There are solar panels on the tops of many buildings in the villages and farms. It almost seems anachronistic since I tend to think of these tiny rural communities as idyllic and quaint. Maybe I should (definitely) reevaluate my categories.

These photos don’t show the barns whose roofs are completely covered in the panels. There are also countless wind and solar farms, so much so that the wind mills provide about 10% of Germany’s power! (For comparison, wind energy in American accounted for about 3.5% of power usage last year.)

While leaning against the window and watching all of Germany’s farmland, villages, and mountains go by I was also struck by the cars flying by at unbelievable speeds along the Autobahn. When I was a kid, the Autobahn and its lack of speed limits is something that came up with some regularity, but I’m not sure I was envisioning it properly at that time. I had an idea of it being one clearly-marked and bounded straightaway, a contained strip of chaos in the midst of an otherwise orderly country — like a ride at a carnival where one could really let loose — and at the end, maybe you make a u-turn to do it again. As it turns out, Autobahn just means ‘highway’ and the Bundesautobahn is Germany’s federal highway system. The network has a recommended speed limit of 130 km/hr though some vehicles are restricted (large trucks or cars with trailers) and there are hard limits in construction areas. If there is an accident, an especially fast driver can be held responsible for increasing the risks on the road.

That being said, I hadn’t given the Autobahn much thought until Daniel and I visited Vienna a couple of weeks ago. We had the opportunity to ride along with a friend who was making the drive, and I was reminded very quickly of the fact that people can drive as quickly as they see fit since we were in the car doing the “flying by.” This really does change the game and it was interesting to be in an environment where a driver complains about getting stuck behind someone who’s “only going 140 km/hr” (about 90 mph). It’s not until about 180, though, that you really feel like you’re flying. Somehow it feels more like flying that actual flying does. And when the traffic stops in front of you while you’re travelling at a speed of 190 km/hr (120mph) it makes you appreciate that the Germans can afford nice cars, good quality tires, and regular brake maintenance.


It really was an enjoyable car trip. You can see a bit of the map Daniel and I used above. (The people in the front seat had a sophisticated GPS routing device, but from the back seat this one had everything we needed.) We even got to see a few of the castles!

The other perks of driving through Germany and Austria is that you get to drive past places with names like Gmünd, which is pronounced exactly like it’s spelled, except that the ‘ü’ is the most intense ‘oo’ sound one can muster.


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