Wheels of dreams: why aren’t electric cars catching on?


FRANKFURT — Tiny, sporty, glamorous and green – this year’s Frankfurt Auto Show transformed itself into a vast playground for the auto industry’s latest battery-powered toys. From Audi to Hyundai, major carmakers showcased cutting-edge technology: lightweight vehicles that look good, drive fast and, most importantly, produce little to no emissions at all.

Electric technology has become the hottest trend in the auto industry, especially as oil prices continue to climb and the number of environmentally conscious car buyers continues to grow. For the first time ever in Frankfurt, an entire hall at the auto show was dedicated to e-mobility.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited the trade fair on opening day, said, "electro-mobility, electric and hybrid cars are very much the window of the future." And the country’s auto industry association announced all major German carmakers would have electric vehicles (EVs) ready for the road within the next few years.

But behind the brilliant headlights and daring designs, lingering doubts remain over Germany’s readiness to flip the switch.

“It takes some time. I think we are going step-by-step into electric cars,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an automotive analyst with the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “If you go toward a breakthrough technology, it’s not done in one day because the customer has to become acquainted with it.”

Industrialized countries have pledged impressive sums of money to ramp up electric car production, and fast. China, France and the U.S. have earmarked around $14 billion for technology development, through a series of tax incentives, subsidies and bonuses.

In Europe, Germany has taken the boldest – and quickest – step toward electrifying the car market. In May, officials announced they would double the amount of funding for research and development of EVs to 2 billion euros by 2013. The goal is to have one million electric cars on the road by 2020, and to do so by improving battery technology and establishing powering stations across the country.

“One million cars is ambitious but reachable,” said Mathias Samson, the head of the transportation and e-mobility division at Germany’s Environment Ministry.

But some analysts say the government’s goal is too bold over too short a time, doomed to create a small, niche market of wealthy customers instead of promoting eco-friendly technology more broadly.

“The worst example is, the government decides to give everyone who buys an electric car subsidies,” said Martin Rocholl, transportation director at the environmental advocacy group Europe Climate Foundation. “All that leads to is some rich family having a third vehicle which is electric somewhere in their garage and every once in awhile they drive into town with it and get a free parking space. We gain nothing from this scenario.”

More from GlobalPost: Arrrgh! Pirate party takes Berlin

More troubling, say experts, are the cost and performance issues plaguing the battery technology. Batteries represent most of the extra cost in buying a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric car. And when they eventually fail, the price of replacing them can be as high as thousands of euros – a significant deterrent for many potential car buyers. On top of that, many of the fledgling electric models currently produced only drive a limited distance before they need to be recharged.

“What I am hearing from different experts is that it will be a while before any of these cars go further than 200 kilometers [124 miles] on one battery load,” said Rocholl. “Would you buy a car that only runs for 200 kilometers and then needs to be [recharged] for six to eight hours?"

Despite these barriers, Germans are in fact buying more electric cars than ever before.

In the first six months of the year, 1,020 new EVs were registered in Germany, compared to only 62 in the first half of 2010. The environment ministry says it conducted a series of studies on car buyers’ interest in electric cars, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

“On a whole, we have an incredibly high willingness to purchase electric cars,” said Samson. “They’re still expensive and only a limited amount of people can afford them right now, but with time, and with mass production, the price will go down.”

It could take decades to ramp up market share. Even if Germany achieved one million electric cars on the road by 2020, it will only represent two percent of the country’s auto fleet. Experts say car buyers are intimidated not only by the high price tags, but also by the lack of infrastructure required for daily electric transport.

“So far there has been many promises but no real instrument, no measures,” said Werner Reh, transportation analyst at Friends of the Earth Germany, an environmental advocacy group based in Berlin. “We don’t see that this (e-mobility plan) will work because then you have to build a huge infrastructure to repower and reload the batteries.”

More from GlobalPost: Can Germany kick its nuke habit?

Plug-in hybrids give drivers the option to switch to fuel once the battery has lost charge, while fully-electric vehicles need to be plugged-in and charged for several hours before they can be driven again.

But Samson says Germany doesn’t need an extensive public network of plug points to support the initial goal of one million cars by 2020: most drivers can charge their cars overnight at home or while at work, and there are plenty of power points already on the road today.

“There are more charging stations than there are electric cars in Berlin,” said Samson. “We all assumed that we would need a lot of charging stations at first. But we realized in our government program that that’s not the bottleneck.”

The real problem, says Samson, remains the cost. But much of the money Germany has dedicated to e-mobility is earmarked for research and development, with the aim of creating better, lighter and more cost-efficient batteries that will reduce the price of the cars, too.

Major automakers like VW, BMW and Daimler are already pushing forward: electric models they debuted at the auto show will be available to buy at dealers across the country as soon as 2014. Analysts say the true test will come after 2020, in trying to grow the share of the car market to as much as 25 percent.

Still, many believe the German government is well on its way to becoming a leader in e-mobility and electric technology – yet another boost for Germany’s strong, export-oriented economy.

“It’s not the question whether it’s 1 million or 900,000 or 1.1 million (electric cars),” said Dudenhöffer. “The idea is to prepare the future for new technologies and the government should help – at least in a country like Germany which is very export-orientated – to give its industry the resources to find new products for export.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.