The German government is not giving up on its plan to have one million e-cars on the roads by 2020. The trouble is that potential buyers are anything but enthusiastic about them.
Some 1,000 executives, technicians, scientists and policy makers gathered for a two-day international conference on future mobility in Berlin. They also wanted to get a better insight into why e-mobility in Germany had so far proven to be rather slow in taking off.
Three years ago, the German government said it wanted to see one million electric vehicles on domestic roads by 2020. So far, there are only 6,400 such cars in operation. Even pro-business Free Liberal Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is rather tight-lipped about the current state of affairs. He says there's definitely room for improvement.
"The percentage of e-cars on our roads is so small that even I as the chairman of a relatively small party do not want to mention it, although it has doubled in recent years," Rösler quipped.
In order to reach the one-million threshold in time, more e-cars would have to be registered every month from now on than are currently on the roads. That doesn't sound particularly realistic, but the government is adamantly sticking to its target. Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the chorus of government officials at the Berlin conference who called the scheme ambitious, but do-able.
Rösler thinks a lack of advertizing is to blame for the slow progress, while the transport minister Peter Ramsauer is calling on industry to speed things up a bit in order to broaden their product range. Ramsauer said he was faced with many skeptical questions at the conference. But he added he was sure that demand would rise in line with supply.
"Let's not approach this issue with too much skepticism, but with confidence and enthusiasm about new innovative products," Ramsauer insisted.
If you say one thing, you've got to say the other
The meeting was characterized by a mixture of pep talks and covert recriminations. Policy makers and industry may have the same target, but each side expects the other to do more than it's willing to do.
"If a fixed number of e-cars on the roads is a politically supported target, we need to have the right legal framework in place to deliver," Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche commented. "If you say one thing, you've got to say the other."
The German government has made it clear that it is not prepared to offer subsidies to purchasers of some 8,000 euros ($10,300) as in China, the US or France. But privately owned e-vehicles would be exempt from car tax, with a reduced tax levied on company cars. In addition, there's continual support for research and development. By the end of the year, research schemes to the tune of 1.5 billion euros will have got off the ground in Germany. Also under discussion is the possible use by e-car drivers of lanes so far reserved for buses as well as better parking opportunities in inner-city areas.
German carmakers could find themselves at a disadvantage when in 2020 newly registered cars in the EU are allowed to emit no more than 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. In 2012, the average among German auto makers stood at 140 grams per kilometer.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was in favor of granting domestic carmakers something in the way of "super credits" for CO2, so that the low emissions of their electric vehicles would have a disproportional effect on the calculation of the average emissions of a company's entire range. After all, said Merkel, "If you think of where the innovations come from, it's largely from big cars, which then trickles down to small cars."
That's already done in the US, where electric cars are given double the credit, or in China, where they get five times. The EU offers only 1.5 credits.
Zetsche sees this as a particularly important point: "We also need the possibility to collect such super credits over a longer period and use them flexibly."
That way, he argued, producers would be encouraged to market more e-cars which would also impact prices. And it's the price for electric vehicles that's putting off consumers most at present. Volkswagen's E-Up for instance, which is to hit the market towards the end of this year, will cost between 19,000 and 25,000 euros and would thus cost about three times as much as the company's comparable petrol-driven version.
A recent poll by the German ADAC automobile club has shown that every second driver in the country is no longer willing to pay more for an e-car. Two years ago, only 25 percent of drivers ruled out paying more. And there's a problem with the infrastructure. Battery re-charging stations are few and far between, so who will buy a car if they don't know where they can recharge it?
E-mobility in Europe is still in its infancy, with many pilot schemes still in progress. The European Commission agreed on a standardized re-charging socket only at the beginning of this year. But not all the details have been sorted out yet.
German carmakers are meanwhile looking for alternative sales markets for their products. VW has developed an e-car especially for the Chinese market, by far its most important. Daimler is also eying China for more business opportunities.
Daimler's Zetsche used the Berlin conference to talk to the Chinese Science Minister, Wan Gang, about the topic. Wan Gang later announced he'd already assured Zetsche that all e-cars built in China, including those from joint ventures, would be sold with a state-financed buyers' premium.