Business, Economics and Jobs

Germany drags on electric cars


German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) visit a BMW plant in Leipzig on Nov. 5, 2010. The plant will be expanded to produce the newly-developed Megacity electric car.


Steffen Kugler

BERLIN, Germany — A German psychiatrist friend once memorably described the idea of imposing speed limits on his nation’s autobahns as “like castrating a Porsche.”

It would be anathema to the average German to suggest a car is a device to get from A to B. Cars here are things of beauty, precision and power. The German passion for great, growling engines has dimmed little since Carl Benz invented the car 125 years ago.

This is why Germany, despite its environmental proclivities and cutting-edge auto industry, has lagged behind other countries when it comes to the electric car. Germany’s focus has been luxury and sports cars that are big, strong and safe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel this week signalled that she intends to close that gap with a pledge to double government support for research and development into electric cars, which equals a boost of about 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) by 2013. The government will also offer incentives to consumers, including an exemption on road tax for five years and free parking in cities for electric cars.

Too little, too late, some experts say. Germany has already let itself fall behind countries like Japan, China, the United States and France. Indeed Merkel’s pledge to put 1 million electric cars on the road by 2020 — compared with about 20,000 today — has sparked a debate about the electric future of the industry in the home of the automobile.

“It should have been done years ago,” said economist Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy, transportation, and environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research. “The German industry — Porsche, BMW, Daimler, Audi — they simply wanted to sell their bigger luxury cars, which are conventional machines using conventional fuel. Now they see there’s a market booming in electric cars.”

None of the big German firms yet has an electric car that is widely available. Japan has the Nissan Leaf, released in December in the United States and Japan, and the Mitsubishi i MiEV, which has been on the market more than a year.

General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt — a “plug-in hybrid” that runs about 35 to 40 miles on a rechargeable battery before switching to a conventional fuel tank — also came out late last year.

Volkswagen and BMW, by contrast, won’t have electric cars on the market before 2013, when their respective E-Up and Megacity models are set for release.

The electric cars now available have suffered their share of criticism. With a range typically limited to about 100 miles before they need recharging, electric cars are suited to big-city living but not to rural life where people drive long distances daily.

In this respect, Merkel was right to reject the temptation to simply offer rebates to people who buy electric cars — as other countries such as the United States and Japan have done — said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, an auto industry analyst based at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

“There’s no point spending money on a guy living in the Black Forest who wants one of these cars,” Dudenhoeffer said. “Just giving people money is the wrong approach. When you think of an electric vehicle, you can’t just think of a car where you’ve changed the combustion engine to an electric engine.

“It’s about asking how you integrate the electric car into new ideas of mobility in cities, integrating it into car-sharing systems and into public transport in a new mobility infrastructure that consists of trains and buses. That is the idea of the electric car.”

German green groups echo that view, saying Merkel’s approach was driven by the auto industry rather than by environmental concerns. Certainly, Merkel avoided a simple rebate on electric cars knowing she’d be subsidizing Germans to buy Japanese products for at least the next couple of years.

“It’s a waste of money from the environmental perspective because it’s more about the survival of the industry if the price of oil peaks,” said Werner Reh, of Friends of the Earth Germany.

He agreed that electric cars needed to be integrated into the overall transport plan of big cities, enabling people to drive, for example, to a train station. But electric cars also need to be much smaller and lighter, he said. Otherwise, their environmental benefit would be marginal.

He applauds for instance BMW’s Megacity, whose body will be constructed from carbon fiber rather than steel, making it between 550 and 600 pounds lighter than any comparable electric car. It is a bold approach, given that the carbon fiber material costs about 50 times more than steel. Under Merkel’s plan, it is uncertain whether such research would even attract government incentives. Merkel said the development of batteries and the infrastructure needed to charge them were the key challenges and would therefore be the main focus of the new funding.

All car manufacturers face the same basic problem that rechargeable batteries are too expensive, too weak and too heavy to power conventional car bodies. That is partly because modern cars have become considerably heavier as a result of technological progress. The original Volkswagen Golf from 1974, for instance, weighed 750 kilograms. The latest Golf is about half a ton heavier, though it is considerably more powerful and can be driven into a wall at 64 kilometers an hour (40 mph) without causing serious injury to the occupants — an accident that probably would have been fatal in the original model.

The message from experts is one that many U.S. and German motorists might not be eager to hear: if electric cars are to become a reality and if environmental goals are to be met, sacrifices in size and power will need to be made.

“It doesn’t make sense to have cars that weigh one ton plus a heavy battery,” said Friends of the Earth’s Reh.“It’ll have to come to downsizing and a rethink of the model of individual ownership.”