It might have been wise to take Günther Schuh seriously sooner.
In 2011 Mr. Schuh, a professor at the RWTH Aachen University, presented an idea he had developed with his students at the IAA in Frankfurt. It was a small electric car called the Streetscooter. Established manufacturers treated it with barely concealed derision. Many felt it was too Spartan and too makeshift. “They put us in the ‘youth research’ corner,” Mr. Schuh recalled. “I didn’t accept that.”
Today, the Streetscooter is the most successful electric delivery truck in Germany. Deutsche Post has taken over the Aachen company, and now wants to build tens of thousands of the vans at its own plant.
Günther Schuh talks about the project with some satisfaction. But the electric delivery vehicle was only the first step, he says.
The laboratory run by Mr. Schuh and his developers at the Aachen campus looks like a construction site. The team is working on the next surprise. The professor has launched a new car company with the money from the sale of Streetscooter: e.Go Mobile AG.
The idea is to develop an electric city car. With government subsidies, the e.Go Life, will have a price tag of just €12,000 ($13,400). The first cars are scheduled for delivery in mid-2018.
The vehicle breaks with many long-established industry rules. Compared to the competition, it has a limited range of just 100 and 130 kilometers (62 to 81 miles). With 22kW of power and a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour, the Life isn’t something you would drive on the Autobahn. It’s targeted at a niche market of customers who want a second car for the city. The lightweight car leaves most ordinary cars in the dust — at least for the first few meters.
Germans are just as interested in electric cars as drivers in other countries, Mr. Schuh insists. “But so far their interest has not been reflected in a willingness to pay more.” In other words, electric cars are just too expensive. And when it comes to price, no one can hold a candle to the e.Go Life.
Asked why there are no affordable electric cars on the market today, the large automakers generally give the same answers: Batteries are still too expensive, and production is unprofitable because consumers aren’t buying enough electric cars. An ordinary small car needs an annual production rate of about 100,000 to turn a profit.
“The fact that the established automakers need to search for high-volume products is a result of their structure,” Mr. Schuh said.
He and his team of developers are taking a different approach. They’ve tried to use components that don’t require large machines. Instead of using a self-supporting body, they installed an aluminum passenger cell in the e.Go Life, using Formula 1 race cars as a model. The small electric car’s shell isn’t made of painted sheet metal but thermoplastic resin.
“The car essentially doesn’t age,” Mr. Schuh said. And when components become scratched or the owner wants a change, they can simply be removed. “We will give our customers an annual update, and it will consist of more than just software,” Mr. Schuh said.