Germany Wants Electric Car Leadership, But Carmakers Are Reluctant

By · May 28, 2013

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, talks about electric cars

German chancellor Angela Merkel talks about electric cars.

Germany leads Europe. It's the richest country, it has the most people, and it has the best factories making great products. But besides food, there is one area where it doesn't lead: electric cars.

There were only 1,032 new electric cars sold in Germany in the first quarter of 2013. More EVs were sold in France, and even in tiny Norway. So what's wrong with this picture? That was the main question at a government-organized industry summit which took place in Berlin earlier this week.

Three years ago, the German government laid out the plan to have one million EVs on German roads by 2020. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, reiterated that ambitious goal (her own words) on Monday. But with fewer than 15,000 EVs in Germany, a lot needs to happen, starting with more electric vehicles going on sale.

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, checks the Volkswagen E-Up

Merkel checks out the Volkswagen E-Up

The Renault Zoe will launch in Germany next week, and the updated 2013 Nissan LEAF will be available by July. The Tesla Model S will follow in August, then the BMW i3 and the Volkswagen E-Up in September. The year 2014 will bring the Audi A3 etron, the Volkswagen E-Golf, and the Mercedes B-class Electric Drive. So without making specific forecasts, it's only logical to assume that EV sales will rise sharply because of increased consumer choice.

Germans understands the chicken-and-egg EV infrastructure question. Public chargers are coming. There are many local initiatives, and a plan for fast chargers on the highway between Munich and Nuremberg. The government set aside €1.5 billion ($1.931 billion) for EV projects, which may include a revision of the tax companies pay for business cars. The car manufacturers association (the VDA) has asked for it, and it matters a lot in Germany with fleets and business users grabbing nearly a third of the overall car market.

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, checks the Audi A3 e-tron

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, checks the Audi A3 e-tron

At the same time, German car companies struggle to meet Europe's low emissions standards. They are in trouble for making too many large and powerful cars, which put out too much CO2 emissions compared to the (smaller) average European model. Super credits from the sale of a few zero-emission models would help them a lot. Angela Merkel supports this idea. We may expect Germany to lobby for the concept in Brussels.

Ironically, the plan to make electric cars successful in Germany doesn't put individual German drivers front and center. Most electric car sales would be to corporate users, who would buy them because they're cheaper on tax and on energy. It would be strictly business. Carmakers would sell EVs at a subsidized price so that they would be allowed to keep on selling the mighty V8 and V12 wunder-sedans which make most of their profits.

The EV market will grow in this way, because so far, there's hardly any sign of a public interest towards electric cars among Germans. Young people there see the Tesla Model S as slow. It doesn't matter that it's fast in quarter-mile accelerations. What matters is top speed, and a diesel Volkswagen Golf GTD goes more than 140 miles per hour, and can travel 700 miles between fill-ups. Car-sharing might play an important role. For short and slow city errands, the electric car is hard to beat, and we can expect thousands of EVs in car-sharing schemes in every large German city.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.