In efforts to promote environment-friendly mobility, the German government is seeking to boost the number of electric cars to one million by 2020. But the cars' shortcomings keep Germans from driving automotive change.
Out of about 43 million passenger cars currently registered in Germany, not more than 7,000 are electrically driven. Nevertheless, the country's environment minister Peter Altmaier still clings to the government's ambitious goal of one million electric cars to be registered by 2020.
"We need to promote the use of e-cars as company cars," he told an inauguration ceremony for an e-mobility project run by German mail and logistics firm Deutsche Post. By the end of the year, the former state-owned company aims to establish a fleet of 79 electric delivery trucks.
That was nothing unusual in Germany, said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center for Automotive Management - a research think tank based in Bergisch-Gladbach. He noted that most of the e-cars in operation here belong to companies and carsharing businesses.
"Unfortunately, only a small number of e-cars are being used by private customers," he told DW.
For ordinary German drivers, electrically driven automobiles were still riddled with problems, ranging from the limited mileage acheived by the cars to a lack of re-charging points and insufficient home infrastructure for re-charging.
In addition, e-cars cost about 50 percent more than conventional vehicles, Bratzel said, which hardly anyone was willing to pay. He urged manufacturers to close the price gap within the next few years.
Japan and South Korea in pole position
However, the German Association for the Automotive Industry (VDA) claims that a breakthrough for electric cars is being hampered by lack of choice in car models.
"The small number of e-car sales is prompted by a model range which is not yet convincing and diversified enough," senior VDA official Ulrich Eichhorn told DW.
Eichhorn said he was convinced this would change in the course of the next three years, because German carmakers alone were preparing to bring a total of 16 new e-car models on to the market next year, on top of a number of new models from foreign manufacturers.
According to a study compiled by Roland Berger business consultancy, in collaboration with private automotive research group fka, auto makers in Japan and South Korea are currently on the cutting edge of e-car technology. Especially with regard to batteries, they will continue to lead for the foreseeable future, the study says.
From mobile phone to e-mobility
Noting that German battery makers have failed to keep pace with their counterparts in Asia, Stefan Bratzel said that e-cars would continue to be used primarily as second cars unless they became cheaper and more powerful.
However, automobile industry lobby group VDA claims electric cars made sense not only over short distances and for companies, but also for longer range trips such as commuting to work. VDA's Ulrich Eichorn told DW that low sales figures didn't mean the technology was without a future.
"Considering the number of mobile phones in use in the early 1980s, no-one at the time would have thought that everyone would have one three decades later," he said.
By 2015, the German government will have spent about 700 million euros ($902 million) on promoting so-called e-mobility, which includes auto industry subsidies as well as support for electric transportation projects at community level. In addition, tax reductions for e-cars are planned.
Germany's neighbor France, as well as a number of other European countries mostly in Scandinavia, are trying to boost sales with direct subsidies for e-car purchases.
"This policy has failed so far to increase e-car sales," said Stefan Bratzel from the Center for Automotive Management, adding that the strategy was highly questionable in view of the states' huge public deficits.
German carmakers, too, reject direct sales subsidies - a stance probably prompted more by a lack of competitiveness rather than foresight.
Nevertheless, industry lobbyist Ulrich Eichhorn said he believed sales would go up without subsidies, once industry came up with a convincing model range.
Even in tech-savvy Japan, only about 24,000 electric cars are registered, which still compares favorably with Germany's 7,000 e-cars. At the moment, the German government's goal of reaching one million e-cars by 2020 seems unrealistic. Even industry lobby group VDA expects e-car numbers to reach just 600,000 by 2020, given the current pace of development.
However, Stefan Bratzel said the one-million goal wasn't so important after all. Only if global sales were to pick up substantially, electric mobility would have forged a breakthrough, he added.