The World From Berlin 'Germany's Electric Cars Plan Is All About Image'

Germany has moved up a gear in its bid to get viable electric cars off the drawing board and onto the streets. However the government's plan to get a million electric cars running by 2020 sparked more boos than cheers on Thursday, with some commentators complaining the high-profile plan is more about the election than the environment.

Germany wants to lead the pack when it comes to electric cars.

Germany wants to lead the pack when it comes to electric cars.

If German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet gets its way, small hip-high charging points will sprout up across Germany in the not-too-distant future. According to the "national development plan" unveiled on Wednesday, a million electric cars will be quietly whizzing along German roads by 2020.

The aim is to transform the country into a global frontrunner in the technology. "Our goal is to make Germany the leading market for electro-mobility," Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told reporters in Berlin.

To support its good intentions, the government has earmarked some €500 million ($705 million) to improve the technology over the next three years. Roughly a quarter of the total, which was set aside under the country's second economic stimulus package, will be directed into eight new test areas to establish how the cars could be best moved into the mainstream.

Talk of electric cars has long been in the air in Germany, home to household names like Volkswagen, Porsche and BMW. Volkswagen said it will bring out its first electric car in 2013. This year, Daimler and the German utility RWE are set to stage electric car tests around Berlin. Meanwhile, a team is even working on a "New Trabbi," a rejuvenated electric version of East Germany's spluttering Trabant, which is scheduled to make its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show next month.

But there is still a long road ahead for the electric car. Of the more than 41 million cars driving around Germany at the start of the year, only 1,452 of them were electric. And the fanfare around Wednesday's plan sparked more criticism than plaudits on Thurday, amid complaints of pre-election posing and doubts about the how green the new cars really are.

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The intentions are admirable… but one can only criticize the scope of the new plan. Even if the government reaches its goal, it would still only affect 2 percent of the cars on German streets. Electric cars will, for the foreseeable future, remain a niche product. For years, huge sums have been invested in fuel cells or hydrogen-powered cars -- but no viable cars have appeared on the market."

"It would be better if there were political support for all environmentally friendly cars -- regardless of their fuel. The government can only make a meaningful contribution to the climate by regulating conventional cars. But the governingg grand coalition (of center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats) shies away from such a move. Their agreed limits on C02 emissions are half-hearted ... and the 'scrapping bonus' subsidies, contrary to their US 'cash for clunkers' equivalent, failed to incorporate any environmental component. The government wants to do the right thing with this plan -- but unfortunately it does the right thing in the wrong place."

In an editorial for SPIEGEL ONLINE, Thomas Hillenbrand and Alex Wolf write:

"Members of the grand coalition are busy posturing like eco-pioneers: With the national development plan, they want to bring electric cars onto the streets in a big way. But, at the same time, the government continues to subsidize gasoline- and diesel-powered cars. Above all, the new plan is all about image."

"Outside the government district, electric cars are in short supply. That is partly because politicians have broadly ignored them in recent years. But now electric cars are popular and hip. According to a poll, one in five Germans are postponing buying a car because of interest in getting an electric one. That's why German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his colleagues are getting so excited about them."

"The new plan is meant to be evidence of their passion for the electric car. But, in reality, it is hardly innovational. It falls short on all the points which experts believe would actually encourage electric cars: higher petrol prices, sales promotions and tax benefits."

"And the fact the new offensive follows a program which has had exactly the opposite effect is particularly disheartening. The 'cash for clunkers' program partly subsidized the purchase of 1.2 million new cars -- regardless of whether the car was a more environmentally friendly Toyota Prius or a gas-guzzling Porsche Cayenne."

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Electric cars are no longer a topic for madmen but for the government. A million of these cars should be zipping along German roads by 2020. The government is instigating a revolution."

"Electric cars have immense charm. They use energy more efficiently, don't stink, don't make any noise. Once they are hooked into the energy network their batteries can serve as massive energy storage units while the car is not being driven. A pleasant side-effect of the plan is that it sets Germany on track towards renewable energies: If there is a storm at night, the batteries can tank up on wind power-generated electricity."

"Even the batteries themselves have improved dramatically in recent years. They store more electricity and weigh less and they hardly lose any energy when left alone. Electric cars could have a great future."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Even after the new announcement, there is still a long way to go before electric cars go mainstream. The state will not free up more money than the €500 million already pledged under the second economic stimulus package. That is not much when you consider that the state has recently dedicated €5 billion euros to traditional auto technology, via the 'scrapping bonus' program, and €2 billion for short-term relief of car taxes."

"It is also unclear how the government plans to ensure that the energy used in the million new cars will come from renewable sources. Experts agree that as long as that remains uncertain, the environmental impact of these cars will be far from good. If they were to use the current energy mix they would emit as much CO2 as diesel-fueled cars."

"Also there are no incentives to encourage the purchase of electric cars. Without such a move, these cars will remain a hobby for the well-off. After all, electric vehicles are significantly more expensive than conventional gas guzzlers."

-- Jess Smee


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