Plug-in Cars in Frankfurt: Revolution or False Dawn?

The list of automotive brands showing electric or plug-in hybrids at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show reads like an auto industry A – Z: Audi, BMW, Citroën, Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Opel, Peugeot, Renault, Smart, Toyota, Volvo, Volkswagen…

Are plug-in cars the latest fashion for an industry needing to green-up its image? Or is the EV revolution off and running? The New York Times points to the Mercedes S-Class plug-in hybrid as evidence that “no manufacturer could avoid electricity’s surge.” But the paper also presents both sides of the debate on the staying power of electric power for cars.

Despite relatively high costs and limited driving range, plug in advocates believe Frankfurt represents a true shift toward electric driving. “This is not a false dawn,” said Paul Scott of Plug In America. “This is the real thing.” The opposing view, as expressed by Willi Diez of the Institute for Automotive Research near Stuttgart, is that “some manufacturers are awakening expectations that they cannot fulfill in a reasonable time frame.”

In a bout of schizophrenia, Audi represents pro and con positions at the same time. Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America, last week said that no one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for an electric car, and yesterday his company unveiled the e-tron, a high-performance electric sports car which derives its power from four electric motors—two each at the front and rear axles. Renault showed similar ambiguity by releasing a lineup of four separate electric cars, each one more funky and futuristic than the next—while Thierry Koskas, director of Renault’s electric vehicle program, said, “We don’t just want people to buy an electric vehicle because it’s fashionable.”

The direction of oil prices and the ability of political leaders to enforce increasingly stringent carbon emissions laws may ultimately determine whether or not Frankfurt proves to be a turning point for plug-in cars, a flash in the pan, or something in between. But either way, the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show, which opens to the public on Sept. 17 and runs through Sept. 27, gives a glimpse of what could be—if the environment, economics and technology align. Here’s a list of all 42 plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles—mostly concepts and prototypes—on display in Frankfurt, courtesy of drivesolar.org:


  • Eric

    Quite a list of EVs! We are so close to a new chapter in automotive history that I can almost smell the cleaner air! I thought I would say something positive before the haters and skeptics pile on. :)

  • Shines

    Thanks Eric – I’m glad you’re starting out positive. I think the long list indicates that it is relatively easy to design and engineer an electric car. I am skeptical first of all how many of these concepts will become production and how soon. And also how many drivers will actually buy electrics when they become available.
    I think a critical aspect of the adoption will be a recharging infrastructure. I need to be able to travel more than 100 miles and get my electric vehicle recharged quickly to continue my journey. A Volt style ER-EV may be an answer but I’m not sure about $40K for a small sedan…
    Clearly the long list hints that many manufacturers believe the battery technology is nearly mature enough to consider production EVs. That’s pretty exciting!

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Shines,
    I, personally don’t see charging infrastructure to be much of a problem. It doesn’t cost any more to put in an EV charger than it does to put in a streetlight. The only reason we don’t have chargers everywhere is there is no reason to do so since there are very few EVs.
    The problem is there are no Electric Vehicles. Once the Electric Vehicles are there, there will be motivation to install the much cheaper chargers.
    The exception to this, of course, is California where there are thousands of chargers and only hundreds of EVs.

  • Samie

    In terms of plug-in gas/electric vehicles they are only a skip over technology. Plug-in’s could play a big role in the short-term this gives automakers a conservative approach in that it may mean less pressure to create or use batteries that could be charged for more than 100 or 150mi for EV’s. As discussed before it is unclear what short-term advantage a car manufacture would get out of reducing the limited range of pure EV’s due to losing some revenue from car repairs and the possibility of a EV owner holding onto the vehicle past 3-4 years if limitations were drastically reduced by means of competition.

    Maybe a engineer would disagree with me but it seems logical that at some point a EV should cost less to produce than a ICE again at some future point with production and battery issues controlled. Price on Plug-ins should not change as much as a Pure EV assuming the same hybrid of traditional and electric components are always going to be produced leading to added costs.

    Even with a limited range of say a Nissan Leaf consumers may elect to have a second ICE vehicle like a Versa for long trips. I also raise the question of if production problems do not play a role in distributing EV’s could it be said w/i a few years that this market could reach the same 2-3% share of traditional hybrids?

  • Dan L

    Perhaps we are seeing the results of a shift in lithium ion battery prices. Before, auto manufacturers didn’t offer any EVs because they couldn’t obtain batteries at prices that made them economically feasible. Now, perhaps, battery makers are promising to sell batteries at much lower costs.

    I prefer to think that over the other possibility: EVs are in fashion right now, and everyone’s marketing team is jumping on the bandwagon.

  • Robert01

    The Audi etron is very, very sexy! Not sure about that weird futuristic looking golf cart in the picture above, though.