On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a summit on the electrification of the automobile, with senior executives from the major German auto companies, as well as utilities and the high-tech sector. Germany doesn’t want to be left out of a potential electric car revolution—especially after falling way behind the Japanese competition for hybrid gas-electric cars. German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer said that electric vehicle technology is “the most important project of this legislative period.”
But, the widely circulated German weekly Der Spiegel is calling the re-emergence of electric cars a “great e-llusion.” The magazine suggests that the attention given to “cars with power sockets rather than gas tanks” is more about publicity and political maneuvering than about a real shift to greener automotive technology.
By all appearances, the car companies are on board. BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer will travel to the meeting in a Mini E, an electric version of the Mini Cooper. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche will squeeze into an all-electric Smart ForTwo for his journey to the summit. The article didn’t mention how Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen’s CEO, will arrive. VW recently shifted its plans for its first electric car from the e-Up mini car to the e-Golf, an electric version of the Volkswagen Golf due in 2013.
The CEOs want massive subsidies first for research and development and then for consumer incentives. They are also calling for uniform standards for battery charging stations.
Anti-Electric Arguments, Rehashed
Der Spiegel’s list of EV drawbacks will be familiar to anybody with the recent history of the electric car.
- There’s No Market: Without government subsidies, electric cars are virtually unmarketable. France offers customers an incentive of $6,500, China offers $8,500 and the United States offers $7,500. According to a study by Deutsche Bank, even with big government subsidies, only about 5 million electric cars could be registered in the European Union by 2020. That’s about 2 percent of the E.U. car parc.
- Eco-Benefits are Marginal: According to Der Spiegel, Franz Fehrenbach, chief executive at Bosch—a major supplier of diesel equipment—contends that the environmental footprint of a mid-size diesel car is smaller than that of an electric car, when considering the carbon burned to produce the electricity. Yet, he and others believe that carmakers will find it difficult to achieve emissions targets planned in the EU for 2020 without electric cars.
- Driving Range is Overstated: Consumers will be caught off-guard when range is less than advertised. An electric Smart supposedly has a range of 85 miles, but in a road test by German motoring magazine Auto Motor und Sport, the electric Smart only made it 65 miles on a single charge. Mitsubishi says that its i-MiEV will go 80 miles, but only yielded about 50 miles in testing.
Who’s Side Are You On?
Der Spiegel compares the rage of electric cars with the recent “euphoria surrounding biofuels, which were once touted as a viable alternative to petroleum. Those hopes “were quickly dashed” when the true energy costs and the impact on global food markets were more fully evaluated.
Despite promises by German automakers to deliver electric cars in the next two or three years, the same auto executives seeking subsidies are also expressing doubt. VW CEO Martin Winterkorn believes the costs are too high, the ranges are too short and the charging times are too long. “It’s important to tell people the plain truth,” said Winterkorn.
With the first mass-market electric cars hitting global markets late this year, we expect one anti-EV article after the next in the popular press. Only time will tell how common electric cars will become on the streets of Berlin, Beijing and Berkeley.
But even Der Spiegel grudgingly admits that battery-powered vehicles will become a part of the future mix: “There will not be a single type of engine to ensure individual mobility in a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly way. Instead, cars will still be powered by classic internal combustion engines, as well as by hybrid engines, natural gas, biofuels and one day perhaps even with hydrogen. And, of course, with electricity.”