Germany’s Der Spiegel: Electric Cars Are an “E-llusion”

Merkel Plugging In

In Sept., 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plugs in an electic-powered Smart car as Daimler head Deiter Zetsche and Matthias Wissmann, Chairman of the German Automobile Industry, look on.

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.”

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  • FamilyGuy

    “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.”…..

    Hey Franz, what is being burned when the wind blows or the sunshines? They can both produce electricity, neither burn carbon.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Everything the Germans are saying about EVs, “the costs are too high, the ranges are too short and the charging times are too long”, plays to exactly what Toyota is claiming. While most other auto manufacturers are “full steam ahead” with EVs driven by lithium batteries, there’s Toyota saying that lithium batteries will not last for the secondhand buyers. Of course, there are a lot of auto manufactures that really only worry about the warranty / longevity for that first buyer. Toyota at least recognizes the used car market even if they do not warranty it. Taking into consideration the present state of battery technology, I really think that Toyota’s thinking is correct. Using the present technologies, auto manufactures should be making even higher mileage efficient gas and diesel hybrids than today’s hybrids until the battery technologies are more efficient charging and pushed to much higher storage capacities. Toyota just needs to focus on getting back to their usual engineered quality and quality control to get them passed their present day problems before pushing the technology envelope further “down the road” to EVs.

  • Don Zinn

    If you think Dr. Z needs to squeeze into a Smart you’ve obviol;y never ridden in on! Don’t comment on things you know nothing about, it makes you look, small!

  • Christof

    It’s amazing how much mileage the standard anti-electric arguments get — and how much media coverage they’re getting.

    To me, that’s just an indication of how even the critics are acknowledging that electrics are the next big thing — even as they try, through tired, unpersuasive logic, to claim exactly the opposite. After all, why devote so much effort to dissing electrics if they actually represent no threat to the gas-powered status quo at all?

    As for battery technology: Battery technology won’t grow nearly as quickly and as fast without real cars and drivers out there running on the batteries. There are plenty of people (me, for one) who are willing to be guinea pigs for electric cars and their batteries because EVs represent, in the end, the only form of auto transportation that offers:

    1. potentially completely air pollution free driving (renewables used to create the electricity);
    2. Something approaching complete fueling independence for consumers, for instance, those — like me, and there are millions of us, especially the American Soutwest — who will be able to generate enough electricity via a home solar system to power thousands of miles a year, even tens of thousands of miles a year in an EV.

    And, if in the end, early battery technologies are lacking, the EV-advocates who rush to the electric cars (there’ll be tens of thousands of us, probably hundreds of thousands), will just swap out our early-era batteries for latter-era batteries. Will it cost us more? It might. But we’ll still end up eventually running on proven, long-distance batteries.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Gee, I wonder why there might be a strong preference against electric vehicles from the industrial sector in a country who’s auto manufacturers have bet on small Diesels (VW TDI) or go-karts (MBZ Smart) for fuel economy, or ignoring fuel economy altogether (BMW, MBZ).

  • Green future

    Another advantage to leaving the combustion engine behind is a reduction in the constant drip-drip pollution of motor oil and anti-freeze that covers our streets. Much of this pollution gets washed into our waterways and then the ocean. I’m sure EV cars still have lubricants and we have to always worry about what happens to the batteries in the end, but I think overall these cars will have cleaner footprints.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    @Green future,
    I can’t think of any lubricant in either the Tesla or EV1. The only fluids in them are coolant and brake fluid, both of which require flushing every 7 years or so – not likely to be leaking much. The bearings are sealed bearings and shouldn’t be leaking.
    EVs are so clean and not susceptible to fluid dripping that they are able to put a flat belly pan along the whole bottom of the car. ICE vehicles need to be left open on the bottom to prevent buildup of flammable fluids which, of course, would be a fire hazard (pollute the environment to save the occupants). The flat belly plan on an EV also significantly reduces the aerodynamic drag 🙂
    ! The Tesla does have one pollutant that it may leave on the roads: tire rubber >:-)

  • Max Reid

    This is 1 area where French have lead over Germans.
    Renault is partner of Nissan and they plan to launch 4 EVs in next 2 years.

    If EVs start becoming popular, French will build more Nuclear power plants which will supply low cost power.

    Infact the smaller island nations like Japan, Britain, Ireland can easily switch over to EVs since their driving range is lesser.

  • Alexei

    In UK you have a combination of high fuel prices and shorter distances. But because it is smaller than US, its houses are smaller, packed close to each other and quite often most of the people park their cars on the street and not in the garage/driveway (as there is no space for the garage). So there is no guaranty that you will park your car at exactly the same spot every day. This simple fact makes home charging very problematic as it will cost quite a lot of money to install smart meter chargers with some chip readers (so if you park in different spots on the same street you will pay only for the electricity you took from the grid). Also on street chargers and cables that need to be connected to the car are vulnerable to vandalism.

  • Anonymous

    Just for some background: Diesel is big in Germany – almost everyone drives diesel cars – diesel fuel is cheap (subsidized) and you get high mpg’s on them. The German market is very different to the US market. In the US you still have in some areas a hard time finding diesel stations and it is much more expensive.

    > especially after falling way behind the Japanese
    > competition for hybrid gas-electric cars

    There was just no need for it – diesel engines get comparable mpg’s and is cheaper in Germany (Europa is still the main market for them). Hybrid technolgoy is/was just too expensive compared to the diesel. I hope this will change over time and I also hope that VW will come out with the Diesel-Electric Hybrids which they already showed off and which would combine the best of both worlds.

    > According to Der Spiegel, Franz Fehrenbach, chief
    > executive at Bosch—a major supplier of diesel equipment

    Wouldnt beliefe a word from him – he knows that hybrid and electric technology are at an early stage and will get over time way better (more efficient, cheaper) than conventional diesel. He probably would like to kill competition that would destroy his business.

    > Without government subsidies, electric cars are
    > virtually unmarketable

    Again – It’s a new technology, and yes new/early technology is in the begining too expensive and needs subsidies to become a mass markted product – but these subsidies will pay off over the long run and technology will get cheaper once it is a mass product.

    And hey what about the subsidized diesel in Germany ??? – given this argument, sell diesel to the true price and than wait how people complain that their tank of diesel doubled in price. In this case, even with the ‘better’ mpg over gas it wouldn’t look good anymore. Than they all will scream, that they need electric cars and hybrids to save some money.

    > Consumers will be caught off-guard when range is
    > less than advertised

    I don’t think so, consumbers are not as dumb as he wants make us beliefe. Even these days everybody knows that the mpg on the sticker has not much to do with real world mpg. For electric cars: in the early days only enthusiats will buy them and they are well informed, than more true real world data will be around and the same rule as for ‘mpg’ ratings that everyone knows apply. Also: I would assume that for the mass market most electric cars will also have a ‘backup’ gas engine (might be wrong here)

    I don’t get why most germans are so against new technologies and just want to stay with what they know? Competition is good and I don’t think one single technolgy will be the solution. I want an pure electric car for my day to day commute to work and back home and some kind of hybrid for the big family trips.

    ‘Der Spiegel’ was never known for well researched articels and is more a shady yellow press publication with ‘political’ cover.

    Anyway, I think gas prices are still way to cheap. Most people won’t buy Hybrids or Electrics because they are good for the environment – you can only get them if they save money.

    Raise the prise of gas by $3.00, put that money to work on future environment friendly technologies and watch people buy fuel efficient cars – thats a win-win for everyone.

  • Max Reid


    This is the difference between a Primary & Secondary Vehicle.

    Primary vehicle should be able to carry all members in a family,
    so it should be atleast a 4, 5 or 6 seater,
    should have 4 or 5 doors,
    should run on main fuels like gasolene or diesel for atleast 300 miles.

    So this vehicle should be a regular vehicle or hybrid or plugin hybrid.

    Secondary vehicle can be any vehicle
    even a 2 or 3 seater,
    can have just 2 or 3 doors,
    can run on electricity for a short range of even 40 miles.

    Since most families have 2 vehicles, the secondary vehicle can be used
    when only 1 or 2 persons travel.

    Also the youngsters who are single or pensioners who have only 2 members
    can buy the Secondary vehicle.

    So there is a market for EV’s even if it has a short range as a Secondary vehicle.

  • Max Reid


    The EFOY fuel concept is excellent.
    Even Bloom energy has a fuel cell that runs on Methane.

    I think fuel cells will also start playing an important role in the EV world.

    There is a plenty of natural gas coming to the market from Shale Gas, Qatar, Russia, other bio-sources, landfill and animal waste etc.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    What’s the cost of the EFOY fuel cell? How long does it last before having to have major maintenance? How expensive is that major maintenance? What kind of refining is necessary for those bio-fuels before they can be put into the EFOY fuel cell (I doubt that I can connect it directly to my sewer and they’re missing the step from trees to methanol)? Why not just burn the methanol in a hybrid ICE – which gets me more mpg?
    This kind of idea has been duplicated many times over the past decade or so but reality is always a lot harder than cute cartoons that completely miss key steps. -I’m skeptical.

  • DownUnder

    Wait and see: on one hand, there are tens of electric car models from Chinese on display at Chi na Motor show and the other hand, the Germans say it’s an Ellusion.

  • Jeffu

    Leave it to the German press to get it all wrong.

    BTW, Germany subsidizes solar more than any other country.

    It’s the perfect country for plugin electric cars and they know it.

    So now we have established that you need not read the German press.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I have to respectfully disagree with you here. Putting PV around Germany is about as useful as putting ski lifts in Egypt.
    Germany’s latitude and cloudy climate make it questionable at best as a place for solar.
    I see their solar in a similar manner as their Mini-E – pretending to do something easy to deflect attention from what is really happening, ie just more European greenwashing.

  • B.Shipley

    Wind power is a false economy; a fact that would become readily apparent if all government subsidies were eliminated. Wind turbines are expensive to manufacture and it is my understanding their cost cannot be recouped within their life expectancy, making the ROI on wind power a negative number. Wind turbines generate zero power if there is too little wind, *or* if there is too much wind! Offshore wind farms everywhere face stiff NIMBY opposition, even from the most prominent, outspoken and hypocritical family of Massachusetts liberals, the Kennedys.

    Wind turbines generate electricity, and batteries are required to store any surplus electricity. To store massive amounts of surplus electricity requires massive banks of batteries, which quickly gets expensive. Because batteries are DC, huge and expensive inverters are required to convert the DC current back into AC current for transmission over the electrical power line infrastructure. Because wind farms are usually constructed far away from where the power is consumed, the electrical power lines must be extended great distances, and this cost is either rolled into the bills consumers pay for electricity, subsidized by government through higher taxes, or both.

    Alternative energy is great in theory, but the engineering must be viable, and viable engineering includes an economic component. (As engineers like to say, “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.”) Hydroelectric is an excellent clean, renewable resource and generates power as long as the water flows. Geothermal works great in certain areas, but it’s still more expensive than conventional energy (just the installation costs alone can make such projects inviable). PV technology has been around for decades but is still too expensive and unreliable, and only works when the sun shines (as long as the panels are free of dust & debris, snow, leaves, bird droppings, etc).

    We should certainly investigate alternative energy resources, but meanwhile here in the USA we need to build more nuclear power plants, more coal power plants, and more gas & oil refineries and power plants. The engineering for all of these conventional fuels is solid, they can be used safely and cleanly, and nothing packs the energy, portability or flexibility of hydrocarbon based fuels.

    America needs energy, and we’ve known for decades that we must become energy independent; the DoE was established for this very purpose, but 33 years later it has failed to even address that objective! It’s well past time to dissolve that inept and bloated gov’t agency.

    Alternative energy such as wind and solar cannot come close to replacing conventional energy sources, they cannot provide baseline power, nor are they economically viable, they can only appear to be with government subsidies, which creates an unsustainable false economy. Bio-fuel (ethanol) requires more energy to produce than it can provide, and alchemy lesson even California has learned! Creating new taxes and penalties for energy consumption is no solution unless the intent is to further cripple our economy. Politicians who fail to recognize these things must be retired at the first opportunity, so too, must the DoE (both of’em).

    Do a search on Wind Turbines on You’ll never want one near you house. There’s a terrific video of one failing in high winds – the brakes are supposed to stop them over a certain wind level, but these failed and the turbine failed spectacularly. Then there are the videos of ice build-up on the blades. Note: the turbines are not supposed to operate with ice on the wings, they are supposed to shut down automatically.

    Also, wind power is not safer than conventional sources of energy:

  • B.Shipley

    As for “generating enough power at home to drive thousands of miles” — perhaps, just as long as you don’t drive a distance away from your home that’s more than 50% of your battery charge. If you drive past your failsafe point, you’d better have AAA, else someone’s doing some walking.

  • Wayne Nicholson

    Except that producing the windmills and solar panels also cost carbon, and also the manufacturing process leads to pollution. It’s not that clear cut. It takes a lot of material to make a wind mill, and a lot of processing.

  • Wolf

    I’m somewhat horrified by most of the opinions expressed here and would say at least 50% is simply wrong, eg:
    – Diesel fuel is NOT subsidised in germany (it is merely taxed lower than gasoline which is fundamentally different – and at a rate that would make any US readers eyes water!).
    As for the comment that the UK and Japan are “small island nations”. Ha, ha, very funny.

    Get your facts right in future before commenting in future please.

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