One evening in April there was a traffic jam on the road to Berlin’s famously unfinished Berlin Brandenburg Airport, or ber. Cars full of late arrivals lined the ramp leading to the passenger drop-off area; some impatient drivers used another lane to cut the line. They weren’t worried about missing a flight. That night ber hosted the 11th annual Airport Night Run, with a half-marathon and other races leading from the empty terminal building along the passenger bridges interspersed with piles of bricks and across the defunct southern airstrip. So many runners were delayed that the races had to be postponed by 10 minutes. But for an airport that remains unfinished five years after its hastily cancelled opening in June 2012, what’s 10 minutes?
The story of Berlin’s botched airport is a story without heroes – and one that many residents have tired of. For a while it was considered clever, in the capital’s self-deprecating “poor but sexy” humour, to make jokes about its inability to build an airport – a reminder that Berlin isn’t really Germany. But by now most would prefer not to be reminded of the comedy of errors: the expected €6.5bn price tag, nearly four times the original estimate and costing an additional €1m every day; that the public airport company FBB just got its third ceo since 2013; or that there’s still no date for the opening (not that anyone would believe it if there was).
The project has an astonishing ability to turn Berliners into cynics. Possibly the only people who still think fondly of it are the workers hired to finish it. Since they get paid for hours worked rather than jobs done, as long as there are doors that won’t open or sprinkler systems that lack water, they are fine. But when the presenter at the Airport Night Run tried to make a joke about the debacle, the audience met it with weary looks – he apologised.
Here’s a timeline of ber. In the reunification euphoria of the early 1990s Berlin mounted an unsuccessful bid to host the Olympic Games and turned Schönefeld into a provisional airport, which it arguably remains to this day. Soon after, Lufthansa voiced interest in a new hub in Berlin but its favoured locations were blocked by the federal government, part-owner of competing Frankfurt Airport. The government instead pushed for an expansion at Schönefeld, allowing only for a medium-sized airport; Lufthansa pulled out. Lengthy negotiations with possible investors and construction syndicates failed and in 2002 the FBB decided to build and manage ber itself. Ground was finally broken in 2006. What follows is one of the rare examples of a story that actually warrants the description Kafkaesque: a sequence of unrealistic assessments by unco-ordinated actors led to last-minute changes in design, which in turn required new permits, which in turn were delayed by new legal requirements. Meanwhile the project manager, sceptical of the 2011 deadline, was fired and one of the main construction companies went bankrupt. But on the surface everything appeared to be on track. The inauguration was pushed to 2 June 2012, party invitations were sent out to everybody from Angela Merkel down and Tegel Airport prepared to close at last. Then, on 8 May, less than a month before BER was due to open, the launch was cancelled.
The FBB cited a faulty smoke extractor but a report later found that the airport was only 56 per cent finished; the smoke extractor wasn’t even ready to be tested. Cue more Kafka, now with a side dish of musical chairs, as executives and technical staff were hired, fired or shifted around, always with sizeable compensation. The latest reshuffle took place in January when the FBB finally admitted that a 2017 opening was off the table. The company proudly presents ber on its website but for most Berliners it seems unimaginable that the airport will ever serve for anything but half-marathons.
There are many reasons that ber turned into one of Germany’s biggest postwar financial scandals, a funeral pyre of public funds and political careers: the initial choice of location, the failure to hire a prime contractor, the firing of the project manager in 2008, a lack of political oversight and the woefully incompetent technical staff. Barely anyone involved in the airport wants to speak about it. Even Martin Delius, a former state MP for the Pirate party and head of the enquiry board that investigated the issue after 2012, declines to be interviewed. The board’s 1,200-page report refused to name any responsible parties and instead spoke of a “vacuum of responsibility” and a “collective loss of reality”. The FBB’s new CEO, Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, would so far only say that he plans to announce a new opening date in summer 2017.
“They remain silent due to insecurity,” says Lorenz Maroldt, editor in chief of Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, who has documented the failings around the airport from the beginning. “It makes total sense: even we, who know every screw in that airport, are again and again baffled by everything that goes wrong. That insecurity paralyses them.”
Maroldt’s explanation for the debacle is the decision of former mayor and then chairman of the FBB’s supervisory board, Klaus Wowereit, to not choose a prime contractor – because the board suspected that the bidders had fixed the price – and instead tender in small lots. “That’s how this whole Babylonian mess started,” says Maroldt. “Every small company would blame another company for delays and because there was never a controlled price they have never had any interest in finishing quickly. And this continues to be one of the biggest problems: the companies have great blackmail potential. There’s so much going wrong because nobody wants to claim ownership of this thing.”
The FBB is jointly owned by the federal republic and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, and the supervisory board is mostly made up of elected politicians. Still, it’s not the politicians we should blame but the technical experts who advised them badly, says Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, an independent engineer and architect who has been involved in BER as a consultant.
One of the biggest failures, according to Faulenbach, was the passenger terminal being devised in such a way that it cannot be expanded – a considerable problem if you take into account that ber is designed to handle 27 million people per year at best, yet last year Berlin’s two airports together handled 33 million passengers, a figure expected to rise in 2018.
The FBB’s plan is to keep Schönefeld Airport open, a soul-crushing hall of corrugated iron currently used by low-cost airlines, but shut down Tegel, a beloved airport close to the city centre that is groaning under the weight of its age. For years a large poster at Tegel’s entrance has been announcing its imminent transformation into a technology park but the government’s defence of its plans is under pressure. Enough signatures have been collected to hold a referendum on keeping Tegel open; it will take place on the same day as federal elections in September and has a good chance of passing.
Faulenbach has predicted several times that ber would never be finished and should be demolished but he says that the appointment of ceo Lütke Daldrup, an engineer and urban planner, has given him hope. Faulenbach is now calling for the airport to be gutted: “It just cannot be saved. It’s so badly built that you can’t make it functional.”
But nothing that dramatic will happen, if only because nobody would want to be responsible for the bold decision. The most likely scenario is that ber will open in its current form and be an underwhelming airport that’s too small, hard to get to and operates at a loss because its business model is based on shepherding millions of people past shops, causing major bottlenecks. Haphazardly added new terminals will compound the sense of abandonment and aimlessness.
So what does it mean for Berlin, the capital of a nation whose brand is based on getting things done and doing them well, to have so badly botched a major infrastructure project? It shows that more than 25 years after reunification, Berlin still works in ways that can be incomprehensible to the rest of Germany. And despite Faulenbach’s defence, it doesn’t shine a great light on Berlin’s politicians, who have skirted both responsibility and leadership. Yet one could argue that the ber debacle is an anomaly that shows that even Germans get things wrong sometimes. “It’s a disaster,” says Faulenbach. “But doesn’t that make us more likeable to our European neighbours? That we aren’t always the class winners?”
Unlike the starry-eyed promise of square-jawed businessmen throttling from deal to deal by jetpack, driverless cars are the 1960s view of the future that we don’t need. We wanted hoverboards; we were promised monorails. But driverless cars? They’re the electric carving knife of the mobility sector; the dvd-case-disguised-as-a-Tolstoy of the motoring world.
What are driverless cars? Are they cars at all? If a black cab is a car driven by an expert then a yellow taxi is a car steered by a wiseguy. If an Uber is a car commanded by a computer but operated by an immigrant, then a driverless car is a car commanded by a computer and operated by a computer. Is it just a system? Is it a small train? Is it a morality tale on wheels? If so, what’s it doing on your driveway?
What is a driverless car for: getting drunk but not getting lucky? Driverless cars may just be transport tools for inveterate boozers. Imagine: a high-technology system specifically designed for drivers who can’t trust themselves not to stop by the Red Lion for a couple of pints on their way home from the office.
Many people below the age of 40 in the world’s capitals don’t own a car. They hire one for the night or by the hour. “Cities are congested”, “Cars get scratched”, “Where do I park it?”, “What happens if I want a drink?” are all understandable stances. Actually, they’re not: driverless cars are really for a generation that’s so consumed by technology’s cheap tricks and flimsy baubles that they’d actually go out and buy one (going thirds with their flatmates, naturally) just because it’s made by Apple or Google.
When I first heard that driverless cars a) could exist and, soon after b) do exist, I thought, “Great! I’ll move to LA; go to some fun parties in my Maserati and then it can drive me/us home. Hurry up, the future!” But have you actually seen the Google car? It does a disservice to Toys R Us. It’s an unintended contraceptive on wheels. It’s the zenith of the no-taste-is-good-taste branch of iMinimalism that thinks it’s saying, “I don’t need to make a statement to make a statement”, but is actually saying, “Wilfully force me off the road until I am but flames.”
While we’re here, what do you think about driverless planes? Are you OK with that? It’s probably possible to fly a Boeing 777 without needing a cockpit full of blokes in caps and epaulettes but would you happily pay to board a drone and fly to Shanghai?
When I drive to work I’m surrounded by cyclists and buses and other cars – and they’re all tuned in. Most of those on the roads (really, though, cyclists: please take your earphones out) are engaged in the act of getting from A to B. Give in to the driverless car and you are visiting one more inhuman act upon the highways and byways of the world. Driverless cars? They’re worse than a crash. So, while you’re dismantling your Noddy car, put your know-how into… what? Jet-packs and hoverboards. Don’t you remember the future?
Electric cars are not new: they have been on our roads since the 1890s. Indeed, until 1901, the electric car was neck and neck with the internal-combustion engine in the competition to power our trackless vehicles. But internal combustion took the lead in the early decades of the 20th century, shaping the modern built environment in its image, and the electric vehicle almost disappeared in the rear-view mirror. However, by the late 1960s pollution and the spike in petrol prices that followed the 1973 oil embargo rekindled interest in electric vehicles, bringing the option back to the table.
Since then, over a period of about 50 years, the electric vehicle has existed in this somewhat distant state – “The car of tomorrow” as one author put it. But, of course, as Annie sang, tomorrow is always a day away. In 2017, even after years of hype surrounding electric vehicles, the share of battery-electric vehicles sold in most developed countries’ car markets hovers under 1 per cent. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the electric vehicle as the car of the day after tomorrow.
Was this always the case? Not quite. The first cars, after all, were not really cars – that is, not in the way that we recognise them today. The precursor to the modern automobile (think Ford’s Model T, which was first produced in 1908) emerged from a turn-of-the-20th-century primordial soup of technical recombination and experimentation. Some vehicles were made from two bicycles welded together with an internal-combustion engine mounted in the middle. Others were miniature steam locomotives or wooden horse carts filled with batteries connected to a simple electric motor.
As tempting as it is to look back in time to see the variant that ultimately emerged as successful and declare it the best technology, we must be careful to understand the context in which these early buyers made their decisions. Who was making these choices and why?
Firstly, most early motor vehicles were bought by wealthy men for the purpose of country touring. Society women owned cars – and some even drove them. But touring was perceived as manly and sporting and early internal-combustion cars were pricey mechanical toys that required extensive maintenance. It was more like owning a stable of thoroughbreds or a yacht than owning a Toyota or Ferrari today.
Secondly, if touring was your goal, you needed a vehicle that could negotiate the poor roads of the late Gilded Age and that could refuel in the small towns at which one arrived. While internal-combustion vehicles were lighter and could burn the petrol that merchants sold for cooking stoves, early electric vehicles were cumbersome machines better suited to city streets. Electricity, meanwhile, was still novel and scarce, especially outside large cities. Even if a town had a central electric station, charging a battery could be challenging. Automotive engineer Hiram Percy Maxim drove his electric vehicle north from his Hartford base to Boston and south to New York in 1897 but carried his own tools and occasionally needed to connect his battery directly to the central station busbar.
It is no surprise that early motorists opted for internal combustion. But because these choices shaped both the industry and the suburban landscapes that resulted, those motorists also chose internal combustion for the rest of us. And so, 115 years later, we must confront the choices that history has left us.
What might the alternative electric-vehicle system have looked like? Importantly many early electric vehicles were rented or leased and operated by paid drivers. Unlike the internal-combustion manufacturers who sold cars to the individuals who would drive them, the electric-vehicle business model looked to an urban, fleet-based system. By 1901 the Electric Vehicle Company (evc), the largest builder of electric vehicles in the US, operated dozens of electric taxis in a large station on Broadway in New York. Supplemental, standard battery trays were maintained on site to permit quick and efficient battery swapping, thereby allowing the taxis to stay in service while the spent ones were being recharged. The owners of the evc also owned and operated New York’s electric street railways and envisioned a broad range of “trackless” electric passenger services, including electric buses that would interconnect passengers with their trams.
The evc was an audacious scheme, highly speculative and full of unresolved problems that ultimately brought it down – but it did provide a glimpse into an alternative future. That future was foreclosed neither by technical failings of the evc’s batteries nor the technical capabilities of early combustion engines alone but by the preferences of early motorists and the managerial decisions of the companies involved.
A century later the burden of this early history persists. The electric vehicle never competed directly against internal combustion but always in the context of competing preferences, infrastructures and business models. It would be unwise to neglect these concerns as we continue to think about the future of this important technology.
French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas famously observed that nothing succeeds like success. The history of the electric vehicle illustrates the inverse: nothing fails like failure. In the history of failed innovations, perhaps no technology has failed as frequently, as massively, as completely as the electric vehicle.
Its one-time competitors – think of powered flight or the camera phone – have ultimately succeeded, leaving the electric vehicle alone among those major “expected” technologies whose promise has not been fulfilled. Even today, the electric vehicle remains the car of tomorrow.