Thursday 21 July 2016

Germany's proposed introduction of road user charging for cars

Germany has had a distance-based road pricing scheme for heavy goods vehicles 12 tonne and over since 2005, initially for the autobahns, which has been expanded in scope to include vehicles down to 7.5 tonnes since 1 October 2015 and increasingly Federal highways (not just motorways).  Indeed, from 2018 all Federal Highways will be subject to the charge (known as LKW-Maut).  I've written more about the expansion here.  In time I'd expect the charge to cover all heavy vehicles down to 3.5 tonnes, as the logical next step.  Indeed, Federal Finance Minister,  Wolfgang Schäuble, has said that over time there will be road pricing on all public roads for all vehicles.  
Map of Federal Highways to be subject to heavy vehicle charge

A more controversial development has been the plan to expand charging to include light vehicles (up to 3.5 tonnes).   It was originally to come into force on 1 January 2016, but has been deferred because the European Commission (EC) believes it is illegal and there is some political controversy about it in Germany.  It is unclear when the car vignette (known as PKW-Maut) will be introduced.

German car vignette

The proposal is to introduce a time based charge, known throughout Europe as a vignette which is based on pre-purchasing access to the road network for a set number of days.  As it stands now, the proposal is as follows:

- All German licensed cars will be required to purchase a one-year vignette to use any public roads.  The rate be determined on environmental factors described as "will be calculated based on their engine capacity and environmental performance. For every 100 ccm increment of cylinder capacity up to a defined cap of 130 euros"

- All foreign licensed cars will choose from either a one-year, two-month or ten-day vignette only required to use the motorways.  Depending on the environmental category of the vehicle it ranges from €16 to €30 for a two-month vignette, or €5 to €15 for a ten-day vignette.

The days for a vignette are consecutive.  A one-day trip on the motorways requires a ten-day vignette, and it is valid for ten consecutive days, not ten separate one-day trips on different months.  

Vignettes will be fully electronic, meaning they are enforced by automatic number plate recognition. They will be able to be purchased online, or in registered retail outlets (filling stations).  

Gross annual revenue is estimated at €3.9 billion (in today's values presumably), comprising €3.2 billion from German drivers and €700 million from foreign ones.  Operating costs are estimated at €200 million per annum.  However, the countervailing reduction in the domestic vehicle tax will reduce revenue by over €2 billion per annum.   The estimated first year net revenue is €500 million, but this is expected to increase rapidly 

All revenue raised from the vignette will be hypothecated into the same transport fund as the heavy vehicle LKW Maut goes into, which is unlike existing motoring taxes.    The table below depicts the range of vignette prices. 

Price of annual vignette
10 days
2 months

EC objections

The EC launched an infringement case against Germany (it said it would launch a similar one on the UK for its HGV Levy, but the Brexit vote has effectively stalled this).  The two reasons it regards Germany as infringing the EU Treaty are:

- German drivers effectively will not pay as they receive a commensurate discount in vehicle tax;
- The vignette prices for short term visitors are seen as being disproportionately high.

The German Government is convinced its proposal is legal and personally I do not agree with the first point.  Vehicle tax is a national matter and it is up to Member States as to the level they set it at.  If they want to shift taxation from owning a vehicle to operating it, then it is up to them.  The mandatory one-year vignette for German vehicles using all roads, may be seen as making the vignette different, but this is discriminatory in favour of foreign motorists.  Foreign motorists don't pay when using roads other than motorways, but Germans do.  It would be much more equitable to apply the vignette for Germans to motorways only, but I suspect this would result in significant traffic diversion.  Otherwise, the vignette for foreigners could be applied to all roads, although the EU may still regard this as "disproportionate".  No Member State applies vignettes to all roads, but that is not in itself a reason why they should not be so applied (particularly as, for light vehicles, the marginal costs of their use of motorways is lower than that for local roads, and negligible in any case).  

In short, as long as the same price applies to foreign as to German vehicles, for the vignette, then what is done with other taxes appears to me to be a national matter.  

On the relative prices,  the issue is more subtle.  A vignette, as a daily charge to use the network, seeks to recover costs that should be something akin to usage.  That doesn't mean that a rate for a year should be 36.5x the price for 10 days (or vice-versa), bearing in mind that a short-term user is likely, on average, use the roads much more in terms of time and distance than a long-term user.  Short term users may transit the entire country, or visit it to many places, long-term users may spend days without using their cars.  

I will just point to this report of which I was one of the authors.  The methodology we used to compare the prices of short and long term vignettes was to establish the average daily price and the ratio in daily price between the shortest and longest period products.  

This extract from the report outlines the findings (for prices in 2011):

EU vignette price ratios between longest and shortest term products
As you can see, at the time Slovenia charged by far the highest price for a short term product compared to a long term one, probably because it knew it could charge high prices for what is a two hour drive between Croatia and Italy or Austria.  Austria, by contrast, had the lowest ratio.  What about Germany?  

Applying the same methodology, to the middle environmental category, the ratio per day is:

€0.15 per day for an annual vignette in the mid-range of "Level 2".
€1 per day for a ten day vignette in Level 2.  So the ratio between the long and short term product is 6.7, putting it much closer to the high charge countries than the lower charge ones.

Bear in mind since that report, following representations from the European Commission, Slovenia has altered its vignette rates by increasing its annual charge, so it now charges:

€0.30 per day for an annual vignette for cars;
€2.14 per day for a one-week vignette for cars, with a ratio now of 7.1

It seems difficult for Germany to justify charging cars over 6x as much for a short term vignette than a long-term vignette, as this presumes the average distance or time spent on the network is 6x greater for a 10-day vignette user than an annual user.   There may be statistics to justify this from the BMVI (Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure), but I have not seen them.  I would suggest the Austrian and Hungarian ratios of 3-4x are more realistic.

Where to from here?

I suspect that whatever the findings of the infringement action against Germany, it will continue with the charge, if only because it is unlikely that any fines will significantly offset the €500 million net revenue it will receive.

However, for Germany the vignette should be an interim measure.  It makes some revenue from foreign cars, which is what it is designed to do, but it isn't much of a reform in terms of changing behaviour or in encouraging the more efficient management of roads.

As it expands the LKW Maut in 2018 to Federal Highways, the case for expanding the scope for all vehicles down to 3.5 tonnes must be high, given that neighbours Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland all have heavy vehicle road user charging systems that apply to such vehicles.

For light vehicles, it could do with observing the pilots underway in Oregon and California, and looking at move from vignettes to distance charging, even if it is as simple as odometer reporting. Furthermore, it should do so not simply to rebalance charges from taxes on owning vehicles (which are regressive) but also from fuel taxes which are inevitably eroding in yield and fairness, due to the appearance of more fuel efficient and electric vehicles.  Such a shift would apply primarily to Germans, but could mean Germany charging much lower fuel prices than its neighbours (down closer to the EU legal minimum fuel tax rate), and for all road use to be charged by distance and vehicle size, emissions rating.   Foreign vehicles could simply be required to have distance charging accounts and have distance measured whilst in Germany (and have it apply to all roads at the same rate, unless users want to pay according to road type - with higher charges for local roads, lower for Federal Highways and the least for motorways).  

Those that do not pay by distance, would not be able to receive fuel tax refunds.

Of course there are a number of complications and issues around doing this, but the platform already exists to do this.  Moving the LKW-Maut down to 3.5 tonne vehicles has to be the first step, but the case for distance charging of cars exists now and Germany would be well placed to look at how it could progress this, to replace the vignette it is about to introduce.


  1. Link to the statement of Wolfgang Schäuble is wrong ;)

  2. Comment to:
    "All German licensed cars will be required to purchase a one-year vignette to use ANY public roads."
    Pursuant to law the vignette for German licensed cars will only be required on Federal highways (covering Federal motorways/autobahns and Federal trunk roads). All other roads on state and municipal level will not be included. Of course, there will be only a few cars, which will not be used on Federal highways during a year.

    A shift from a vignette to distance based charging with both options being available simultaneously over a certain period would not be conform to existing legislation.
    Karl-Heinz Stappert
    TÜV Rheinland InterTraffic
    Cologne, Germany