Things I Wish Someone Told Me About Driving on the Autobahn

Driving on Germany’s Autobahn (speed-unrestricted highway roads that are known around the world) is an experience that every driver should try at least once. I was able to test drive a brand new car with a few people in my work group. I rented the car at a discount because of my job, so a few co-workers and I decided to drive from Munich to Cologne for a conference. There were a few things that no one told me about before getting into the fast lane and smashing the pedal on the Autobahn.

For one, I didn’t know the autobahn is a network of roads that were developed after World War II. It was designed to compete with air and train travel within the the country’s borders at the time, which meant people had to be able to drive fast and safely. The idea of the Autobahn prompted the German authorities to enable certain stretches of road to have no speed limit at all, which single-handedly cemented its place as the speed demon’s paradise. However, once the novelty wears off, you’re still left with a stretch of highway and a vehicle to go with a certain amount of time and fuel to get there. When topping off in high gear for a prolonged period of time, you can feel the adrenaline as if you’re trying to down several cups of espresso at the same time. 

The second thing is that speeding obliterates your fuel economy, as I witnessed what happened during a two-hour drive as I tried to best a top score of 180 miles per hour. During the fuel-destroying drive, I did manage to reach the manufacturer’s top speed by a marginal amount, but it didn’t last for long and it didn’t result in me getting to my destination any sooner. The others in my group drove identical cars and managed to accelerate around 160-180 mph and stay there for most of the journey, while shifting to higher gears and remaining at a reasonable RPM. Meanwhile, I was accelerating like a frantic idiot trying to keep up to their pace. I gave myself a half a tank of premium fuel, but my car was pleading to be taken to the next fuel station before it would give out on me. They beat me to the scheduled stop by about 15 minutes, but I managed to kill six liters worth of fuel to catch up, which took twice as long to refuel. It was also likely that they didn’t blow past trucks or trailers. If they got into an accident, they may have probably been a bit better off than me if something catastrophic happened to my car.

The third thing is construction. I wasn’t sure if this needed to be said to anyone with a functioning brain, but the roads need a little construction from time to time since they are pummeled by cars traveling a high burst of speed on a constant basis. Although the aspect of total freedom to drive fast is great, it comes with the risk that you could get seriously hurt if you run into a huge pothole. Any monumental crash is a reminder of exactly why the Autobahn receives constant maintenance. On my day trip, I counted more than a dozen construction and cleanup sites, ranging from refinishing lanes to clearing the side of the road of debris. After all, the last thing you want on your trip is to catch the new season of Orange is the new Black in a hospital room.

The fourth thing is the brakes on the car eclipsed the size of any brake that I have seen in my life, and it’s not at all about the aesthetics. Large brakes are a design feature that are built into every potential autobahn cruiser because the force to stop a car at a inconsiderable speed can be absolutely intense. For that, you’ll need something that won’t glaze over your foot. For example, the brakes on my borrowed car were made with carbon ceramic rotors with enormous yellow calipers. The manufacturer told me that those particular brakes could stop the car with more than three times the force of the engine that accelerates it. What this means is I could theoretically be holding the accelerator at full throttle (180 mph) and then stomp on the brakes without taking my foot off the accelerator and the car would come to a complete stop within a distance rivaling that of a car stopping from 50 mph. As a feat of engineering, it’s insane to think it’s more likely that you’ll survive with a braking system when you drive at a higher speed than if you drive at regular speed.

Simply put, the bigger and more modern the brakes are, the safer you’re likely to be. On one stretch of slightly downhill, bend-free autobahn, I attempted to beat the current top speed of 180 mph I set earlier that day. The car could’ve performed the task without fail, if not for an oblivious driver of a Volkswagen that happened to swerve into my lane to pass a truck in front of it. I was traveling well over 160 mph, and less than two seconds later a firm brake press reduced a cool 73 mph of speed. Had the car not performed as well as it did, you would likely read a tweet saying I died doing what I loved.  No matter what you drive on the autobahn, you’ll always be at the mercy of the slowest drivers in front of you.

Last but not least, while driving in the car, I didn’t feel how hard my body was working. I noticed that my swollen fingers left dents in the firm leather steering wheel and my back has been pushed into the bolsters so hard for such a long time that it may as well have been stuffed into the seat permanently, but when I finally got out of the car to stretch, the strain hit me like a taser. Also, staying alert for hours on end at high speed was extremely taxing on my nervous system. If you’re not mentally and physically prepared to embark on something that can be potentially dangerous and life threatening, then the drive at high speed can be daunting to you. I was in a new car, but I had felt like I was driving in an old car with a seat suspension that might’ve taken a few years off of my life at the bare minimum. It would make better sense to just drive myself to the hospital.

To show just how exhilarating and ultimately exhausting it was on me and my co-workers, We didn’t bother to go out that night when we reached Cologne. Besides dodging through traffic, construction sites, running out of fuel, and being incredibly alert at all times, I was happy to have the chance to experience this ride during my stay in Germany.

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