Electric cars

No Game Change from Lane Change

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Move over public transport.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German government is pushing through laws in order to meet its pledged one million electric cars on the road by 2020.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • There are about 12,000 electric cars on German roads today.
    • Electric cars make up less than one percent of the new cars registered in Germany each year.
    • A typical plug-in hybrid car can travel only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) under electric power.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The driver of the small, fuel-efficient gasoline car can hardly believe her eyes. As she inches through morning rush-hour traffic, she sees a large Porsche Panamera, a luxurious Mercedes S Class sedan and a stylish BMW whizzing by.

The scenario isn’t real, but it isn’t completely fictional either. Under draft legislation just approved by the German government, it could become reality on German streets by next spring. Under the plan, cities would have to allow electric cars to use special lanes currently reserved for buses, taxis and ambulances.

It doesn’t matter whether the vehicles are fully electric or only travel on electric power for short distances, as in the case of cars with hybrid internal combustion and electric engines, or plug-in hybrids. Carmakers like Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, VW, Ford, Mitsubishi and Volvo already have plug-ins in their lineups.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the ambitious goal of having a million electric cars on German roads by 2020.

Opening up special traffic lanes is only part of a legislative package that would grant special rights to drivers of electric cars and hybrids. It also includes free parking spaces in downtown areas, as well as reserved spaces in front of charging stations on public property.

The motivation behind the law is to speed up society’s sluggish acceptance of electric mobility, and the impetus is coming from the very top. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the ambitious goal of having a million electric cars on German roads by 2020.

But despite various efforts, such as car tax exemptions for electric cars and a number of regional incentive programs, Ms. Merkel’s goal still seems very distant. While there are about two dozen electric car models on the market today — from the little Smart to the Tesla S luxury car — you hardly ever see them on the street.

Some 6,000 electric cars were registered in 2013, about twice as many as in the previous year, bringing the total to roughly 12,000 vehicles in Germany. The growth trend is expected to continue this year. Nevertheless, they still make up less than one percent of the roughly three million new cars being registered each year.

Owners of plug-ins don’t have to fundamentally change their behavior.

Anyone who has ever driven an electric car is usually enthusiastic about the experience. But the reasons why so few people are buying electric vehicles are obvious: They cost at least €10,000 ($12.7 million) more than comparable models with conventional engines; the range is usually limited to about 150 kilometers (93 miles); there aren’t enough public charging stations; and it takes about eight hours to charge an electric car from an ordinary power outlet.

These limitations explain why many carmakers are focusing their efforts on plug-in hybrids. Owners of plug-ins don’t have to fundamentally change their behavior, nor do they have to worry about range restrictions. When the battery is empty, they can simply keep driving with their powerful gasoline or diesel engines.

There were 620 newly registered plug-ins in Germany in August, compared with only 515 fully electric cars. From the outside, it isn’t obvious whether the driver of a plug-in vehicle using a special lane is using electric power, the internal combustion engine or a combination of the two. And who is going to monitor compliance?

Many environmentalists are opposed to the government's plan to extend special privileges to plug-in hybrid drivers.

But when plug-ins — usually higher-end vehicles, due to the higher cost of the technology — are being driven in gasoline mode, they consume significantly more fuel than fuel-efficient small cars with conventional engines. That’s why many environmentalists are opposed to the government’s plan to extend special privileges to plug-in hybrid drivers.

And they’re not alone. The Association of German Cities and Towns, along with most traffic planners in urban areas, fear that the additional vehicles in bus lanes will slow down public transportation, making it less attractive to users.

City parking officials are also unhappy. Because the number of electric cars is certain to grow, they will require more parking spaces. But because parking is already tight, say officials, residents will question the fairness of offering free parking for electric and hybrid vehicles. The same concerns apply to reserving public space around charging stations for electric cars.

If lawmakers truly want to put more electric cars on the road, they have two other choices: increase government subsidies or rigorously restrict downtown areas to cars running on clean technology.

 

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: dietmar.lamparter@zeit.de

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