Germany is famed for its automobile engineering—Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen readily spring to mind—and what better compliment to their fine cars than an efficient and pleasant highway? The Autobahn is synonymous with Germany.
German Autobahn history dates back to 1913 when construction first began. The Autobahn is considered to be the world's first motorway. Initially it was only a short 12 mile stretch near southwestern Berlin. That bit of German Autobahn history remains to this day, serving as a race track. During the 1920s and 30s, Italy built its first Autobahn while Germany created the first automobile-only roads; these went from Cologne to Bonn and from Düsseldorf and Opladen. By the end of World War II, the Autobahn network covered an area of over 1,300 miles. It's expanded steadily over the years and by 2004 it grew to 7,500 miles.
In early German Autobahn history, conditions were less than ideal. Medians were all but unknown and even when they were present the shoulders were often missing. After reunification, many of East Germany's autobahns were in the same condition as they were in 1945. As a result, the German government rapidly developed a program to enhance the Autobahns. By 2004 over two thirds of the East German roads were upgraded.
Today, the German Autobahn is a well engineered highway. You might have a conception of the Autobahn as this sprawling German motorway filled with hundreds of cars zipping by as incredible speeds. In actuality, it's a safe, reasonably controlled environment. While much of the Autobahn leaves each motorist's speed to their own discretion, the German government advises that you should not go faster than 130 km/hr (81 mph). In areas of heavy traffic, cities, or inclement weather, speed limits will be posted.
The Autobahn is not only well-designed, but carefully maintained. State-of-the-art electronic monitoring systems have been implemented to monitor weather conditions and traffic density. These systems can then dynamically alter the speed limit to warn drivers ahead of time.
Given Germany's location as the crossroads of Europe, traffic can get quite thick on the Autobahn. This is especially true on Fridays, weekends, and holidays. You'll see signs along the side of the road that indicate which radio station to tune to for traffic reports and updates. You'll need to possess a working understanding of German to understand it though.
Beyond that, the German Autobahn is much like most American highways. Do not pass on the right. If you break down, alert the nearest authorities and place a warning triangle about 600 feet behind your car. The one important thing to keep in mind is that it's actually illegal to run out of gas while on the Autobahn. So keep an eye on that gauge and pull off to fill up when you can.