Trying to solve Germany′s electric car problem | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 15.02.2013
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Trying to solve Germany's electric car problem

Germany's electric car industry is struggling. Still, small companies in Berlin are looking to make the sector more appealing or, are looking for completely different solutions altogether.

With two lanes of traffic heading in both directions, Schönhauser Allee has long been an important transport artery from north eastern Berlin into the city's Mitte district. But, each morning, traffic on this street slows down to a crawl and the air fills with the smell of car exhaust.

Each day in the German capital more than one million people use subways and trams for transport within the city. There are also well-marked lanes for those who prefer riding on a bicycle. But, even in their country's alternative-thinking capital, Germans don't want to part with their car. The big question here is how to find ways to reduce their impact.

The answer could be electric cars. The German government has said it plans to reach one million electric cars by 2020. Currently, there are just 4,500 of them on Germany's roads. Most people agree that the 2020 electric car target won't be met.

Knut Hechtfischer is the co-founder of a Berlin company called ubitricity. He says that many people don't invest in electric cars because they are still afraid that they won't be able to find a charging station and that their car will just run out of power.

Ubitricity tries to get round that problem by manufacturing portable meters that show how much electricity is being consumed, which can be stored in the trunk of the electric car. This, together with small power plugs situated through the city, communicate back to a central register via a mobile phone connection, and charging can occur.

Saving on infrastructure

An electric car being charged at a special charging station in Amsterdam (Foto: dpa)

If ubitricity has its way, traditional electric car charging stations might become a thing of the past

At the moment, special e-charging stations, like petrol pumps, are very slowly starting to appear on street corners around Berlin. Both utility companies and city councils are installing them, with each one costing thousands of euros. But the problem is, they don't create much turnover. They normally only collect a few euros with each charge.

"In the public sphere you want to have easy-to-use, one-size-fits-all charging equipment," says Hechtfischer. "But, the problem is, there isn't the business scale for that at the moment."

Ubitricity's solution means that the traditional e-charging stations aren't necessary. His mobile meter technology saves on infrastructure.

"If you plug in at home and you plug in at work, why would you need to install intelligence on two sides?," Hechtfischer asks. "If you have it only once in a mobile device that you use at both ends we save half of the intelligence, half of respective cost and half of the operation cost."

CEO Hechtfischer says the special ubitricity plugs come in at only a fraction of the cost of the e-charging stations that are currently being built.

Less is more

But electric cars still need to run on power and, in Germany at least, this power often still comes from coal-fired power plants. According to Oliver Lünstedt, the CEO of Carzapp, the key is to change the number of cars, not necessarily their type. He is part of a new Berlin startup developing a system that will allow people to share their cars more easily.

Rather than targeting the electric car market, Lünstedt wants to make use of all the normal, petrol-run cars that are parked on the side of the road while their owners are at work, or away for the weekend.

"We have developed some hardware for that, so that you can get into these cars without having to meet the owners personally," says Lünstedt. In the system, a customer simply opens and closes the car using his smartphone once its owner has accepted him as a renter.

Three work colleagues share a car to work. (Copyright: Fotolia/imageegami)

Car sharing could be about to get a whole lot cooler

Changing people's thinking

The idea that Carzapp is trying to tap into is sometimes called 'collaborative consumption'.

But what about the consumers that don't want to share their car? Fabienne Herault, runs a venture capital fund focussing on eco-mobility. She thinks that car ownership attitudes are changing.

"In the future the difference between public transportation and private cars will continue to erode," she told DW. "I can easily envisage that your individual car could at some point become a shared vehicle, being used by public authorities."

While Germany's government continues to struggle on their development of the domestic electric car business, it seems that some companies and investors are already looking for other solutions - the more innovative, the better.

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