As criticism of the German automotive industry has grown over its lack of response to the threat of climate change and it inability to market low CO2 cars, the president of the powerful German automotive trade association, the Verband der Automobilindustrie (VDA), has resigned.

VDA members, namely vehicle manufacturers, have reportedly been critical of Bernd Gottschalk’s lack of timely leadership in the debate. Gottschalk stepped down on Saturday, although no formal reason for his resignation has been given.

His successor has not yet been named. Several former industry leaders have been mooted as possible candidates, according to German automotive industry weekly, Automobilwoche. They include BMW‘s Helmut Panke, VW‘s Bernd Pischetsrieder from VW Mercedes’ Jürgen Hubbert .

An influential environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), has suggested former Ford and Volkswagen board member, Daniel Goeudevert who was responsible for developing several innovative environmental vehicle concepts during the 1990s.

The new appointment will be critical to the development of a European market for low-CO2 vehicles. In recent years, vehicle manufacturers have been stymied by potent cost competitiveness. They argue that they compete for market share largely on cost and that the market is not ready to pay for expensive environmental equipment. Clearly vehicle manufacturers and the environment would benefit from a cooperative approach to developing a market for the necessary new technologies.

The German government is currently preparing new annual vehicle taxation linked to CO2 emissions, but this is something that the industry could arguably have campaigned for earlier.

According to a report in Spiegel magazine, the VDA attracted direct criticism for a planned advertising programme that said that the German industry would be investing EUR10bn in environmental protection in the next few years. Vehicle manufacturers reportedly put a stop to the campaign, which they said made it sound as though the companies had not done anything in this area up until now.

What appears to be most frustrating to the industry and its observers is that German vehicle manufacturers have developed low CO2 technology, but that they have failed to market it. As a result, Toyota and Honda are winning the PR battle because they are viewed as leaders of hybrid technology, while PSA and Fiat are considered leaders in low-CO2 vehicles in the small and medium car market. Ford and Opel, both members of the VDA, perform better than Toyota and Honda in terms of average CO2 emissions per km of actual vehicles sold, but they have lagged in the PR stakes.

German vehicle manufacturers have focused their marketing on comfort and luxury, and technology developments in this area have been at the expense of CO2 reduction, because they add weight and increase fuel consumption.

According to Spiegel, Gottschalk was also under fire for not defending VDA members in a television discussion, in which vehicle manufacturers were heavily criticised for failures relating to the environment. One OEM boss was quoted anonymously as saying: “As soon as we have found a successor to Gottschalk, he is gone.”

This is not the first time that the German automotive industry has attracted criticism for responding slowly to environmental threats. In the 1990s it was thought it could have introduced catalytic converters more quickly, in the 2000s it was diesel particulate filters, and now hybrids.

Germany drew more direct criticism from EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, during the EU council of ministers summit on climate change. Dimas said that Germany could take the simple step of imposing a speed limit on motorways, according to Bild am Sonntag. “Speed limits are considered reasonable and completely normal on most EU states and in the US – only in Germany are they considered at all controversial,” he said.

Bernd Gottschalk had been president of the VDA since 1996. He was elected to serve for a further two years in October last year.