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April 13, 2011

Many carmakers, parts suppliers and chemical companies are pooling resources to develop electromobility solutions. Daimler and Bosch are setting up a joint venture to build electric motors - an industry first.

Electric car charging
Developing electric cars is complex and expensiveImage: AP

If the federal government has its way, there will be a million electric cars on Germany’s roads by 2020. But until then, there are still many challenges to overcome. In order to make the expensive development of electric cars financially feasible, companies from various links in the auto industry supply chain are beginning to work more closely together. Bosch and Daimler even plan to found a joint company to build electric motors.

In the past, companies have collaborated on developing the components for e-cars, but this level of intense cooperation is new. It seems that automakers, engineering firms, chemical companies, electronics firms and IT specialists have finally all realized that the only way to get good results is by working together.

Li-Tec battery
From the outside, it's hard to see that this battery is chock full of high-tech componentsImage: DW/Sesilia Pappert

The barrier separating manufacturers and suppliers is becoming ever more porous along the value-added chain. Chemicals giant BASF has been working with General Motors' European subsidiary Opel on a new lightweight chassis. BMW is managing its materials sourcing together with SGL Group, which specializes in carbon fiber-enhanced materials. And fuel cell producer 3M has joined Daimler to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car.

Such collaborations have seen a whole range of innovative ideas grow into marketable products. And new developments are emerging at a fast pace. In the field of battery construction, for example, the separators that divide electrical components to prevent a short circuit are being made from a flexible ceramic capable of withstanding very high temperatures. Meanwhile, carbon-reinforced materials don’t just make a car's chassis lighter, they also make it more firm, and therefore safer.

BASF is working to improve energy efficiency through improved thermal management, testing foams that isolate the chassis and special foils that allow light to pass through car windows but reflect heat.

State support

The global race for electromobility has been underway for many years, but it has not always enjoyed support from policymakers and auto industry executives. After decades of neglect in Germany, for example, research and development in the field has emerged as a priority in recent years.

Experimental e-car Wind Explorer
The Wind Explorer traveled 400 km on a single battery chargeImage: EVONIK Industries

Within the framework of its second stimulus package, the German government earmarked 500 million euros for research. This special program is set to run out at the end of the year, but parliamentary State Secretary Hans-Joachim Otto has promised there will be a follow-on package of at least the same magnitude for 2012.

"We want to be the leading market for electromobility, and what’s more, Germany should be a leading developer," Otto said, adding that the country is well-prepared to assume such a role. "German industry is right up there in all the sectors involved in electromobility," he said.

Chemicals industry is key

The chemicals sector plays a particularly important role in the development of electric cars. It delivers the know-how for the vehicles’ heart – the battery. "A battery, or more precisely, the cells at its core, consists of a range of special chemicals," said Klaus Engel, president of Germany’s chemical industry association. A battery’s performance, lifespan, and storage capacity depends on the chemistry of its components. "Today, a car’s performance depends on its engine, and the same will be true of an electric car and its battery," Engel said.

Performance, safety, cost, availability, and lifespan are the five decisive criteria that high-performance batteries will be measured by, according to Henrik Hahn, head of Litarion, a company that produces lithium battery components. "It’s like baking a cake," he said. "You can’t see all the ingredients that went into the cake, but you can taste them."

'A technological miracle'

A big problem facing the electric car market today is the relatively short distance cars can travel before they need to be recharged. However, there are ways around this, as two German extreme athletes proved in January by driving across Australia in a two-seater electric car. The "Wind Explorer" was powered with a battery that was charged en route via a mobile windmill.

It’s a technological miracle, said Engel, who also serves as chairman of the board of Evonik Industries, the company behind the Australia project.

An electric car in front of the Brandenburg Gate
This e-car traveled the 600 km from Munich to Berlin on a single battery chargeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We put together all the components that are important to the future of electromobility in one – admittedly experimental – vehicle," Engel told Deutsche Welle. The Wind Explorer was able to drive the almost 5,000 kilometers across Australia thanks to a high-performance lithium-ion battery, lightweight construction elements, and high-tech tires that ensured optimal rolling resistance.

The Wind Explorer managed 400 kilometers on a single battery charge – the kind of performance that typical electric cars are still far from achieving. This feat was possible because the experimental vehicle weighed a mere 200 kilograms. A standard mid-size car weighs five times that amount.

Limited subsidies

Innovations in electromobility cost a lot of money, which in turn means that the cars themselves will initially be very expensive. It’s a considerable problem since price will be one of the factors that decides how quickly electric cars become part of everyday life.

For this reason, German industry is lobbying the government to subsidize the purchase of electric cars, as is the plan in other countries. Automakers are among the biggest supporters of a buyer’s premium, but the government has remained stubborn so far, insisting there will be no further retail subsidies.

Author: Sabine Kinkartz & Insa Wrede / dc
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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