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E-car in Germany? Forget it!

Ruth Krause, Anne-Sophie BrändlinJuly 27, 2015

Germany is not only eco-friendly - it's also a car-making country. Although you'd think that would make it heaven for use of electric cars, Germany is way behind. DW reporters share results of a real-world test.

Photo: An electric car and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Sebastian Kahnert

Germany is known for its cars: Porsche, BMW and no speed limit on the Autobahn. But if you want to be eco-conscious and drive an electric car in Germany, you'll get a different perspective on the Germans and their cars.

Here are nine things that we learned during our trial run:

1. Hardly anyone buys electric cars

VW, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW - all the German manufacturers have electric cars in their line-up. But only 0.6 percent of all new cars sold in Germany in the first quarter of 2015 were electric cars. In Norway, that figure is approximately 20 percent. Read on to find out why e-cars aren't really an option in Germany.

2. You rarely get very far with them

Our initial plan was to travel 700 kilometers across Germany in three days. That is, until we researched the range of various electric vehicles: 60 kilometers, 140 kilometers, 200 kilometers. Purely electric cars run out of juice after traveling those distances, and hybrid cars switch to gasoline. Only the Tesla - the Porsche among electric cars - has a range of almost 500 kilometers. But it's not available for rent, only for sale - for about 100,000 euros.

3. Although rare in Germany, e-cars are commonplace in other EU countries

The high Tesla price tag doesn't seem to stop people from using them in cities elsewhere: In Amsterdam and Vienna, they are even used as taxis. There's no extra charge for a taxi ride the super-quiet and comfortable car.

4. E-car rental is cumbersome

Photo: Tesla taxi in Amsterdam
Who says it can't be done? Our reporters before taking a Tesla taxi in AmsterdamImage: DW/R. Krause

In our search for a vehicle that offers the longest possible range, essentially the only option we were left with were hybrid vehicles, which switch to gasoline at some point.

Yet those are not available for one-way rentals, and instead have to be returned to the place where they are picked up. They also usually need to be booked days or even weeks in advance.

When we called customer service at Sixt - Germany's largest car rental agency - the customer service representative responded by asking: "Does it absolutely have to be a purely electric or a hybrid car?" Because: "Traveling with an electric vehicle doesn't work."

Instead, he suggested a fuel-efficient diesel. We declined for environmental reasons. He responded: "You want to travel in an environmentally friendly way? Perhaps you should take a bicycle!" Seriously?!

5. Charging up can become an odyssey

After two days of searching unsuccessfully, Volkswagen ended up lending us a Golf GTE - a hybrid with an electric motor that has a range of about 60 kilometers. All went well - until it came to charging.

Our car was parked where cars usually are: in a parking lot, 50 meters from the power outlet in our hotel room. Even if we had brought an extension cable and had been able to run it through the hotel lobby and the stairway up to the third floor, we would still have needed an extremely benevolent hotel owner who would let us tap his electricity all night long.

Back home in Cologne, we solved the problem differently: After searching an hour-and-a-half for a charging station, we parked the car in front of our apartment building and ran the cable out the window. For eight hours in a no parking zone.

We were getting the feeling that charging stations will be key to the future of electric cars - and that things aren't looking good in Germany in that regard either: For Berlin's 3.5 million inhabitants, the website "chargemap.com" was only able to locate 190 charging stations within a 20-kilometer radius.

Photo: Electric car being charged through open kitchen window
No parking zone and open kitchen window, that's how we're charging our VW Golf GTEImage: DW/C. Nasman

Other major European cities are much further along. In Paris, chargemap lists 1,286 stations.

6. Industry doesn't incentivize for e-cars

The German government has stated its intention to put a million electric cars on Germany's streets by 2020. But right now, there are barely 19,000. So why is it that electric cars are struggling to establish themselves in Germany?

Anja Smetanin from the VCD, an ecologically-minded mobility club, says: "What is lacking is an impetus from the industry. At the car dealership and in the ads, what you see are the big conventional cars - you don't see the alternative technologies." Because the big cars are what the manufacturers make their money with, says Smetanin.

7. Public policy is lagging

Smetanin believes the German government is not offering enough incentives. "What is lacking are specific measures and the willingness to reduce CO2-emissions," she said.

When we asked German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks which measures are planned to improve electric mobility, she remained vague: potential tax deductions for hybrid company cars are "being discussed." Public incentives for hybrid vehicles are still lacking.

8. Solutions are possible

Photo: Ubitricity-founder Knut Hechtfischer
"Filling up" at the lamppost makes charging easier.Image: DW/R. Krause

Despite all the obstacles, citizens and small businesses are trying to help electric cars succeed. The Berlin-based start-up Ubitricity has developed a mobile charging device that allows drivers to tap into any power outlet along the way - without having to sponge off the outlet's owner.

The charging device registers how much electricity is being drawn and how much it costs. It saves that data online and later the car owner receives a bill for it at home. All that is required are power outlets in accessible places. Ubitricity founder Knut Hechtfischer estimates that this approach would cost about one-tenth of what conventional charging stations charge.

9. We should push for these solutions - for the environment, and for ourselves

It is worth fighting for new solutions! Once you have gotten past the initial obstacles and actually sit behind the wheel of an electric car, regardless of the brand, it is very rewarding: You get to drive silently without emissions and dripping gas pump nozzles.

Another plus: Driving an electric car also stoked our German automotive pride - relating to the Autobahn, Mercedes and Volkswagen - even more.

This summer, Ruth Krause and Anne-Sophie Brändlin traveled 700 kilometers from Berlin to Paris on a low-carbon road trip. The journey highlights climate heroes and climate solutions ahead of a key climate change conference in Paris this winter.