The German car industry has been accused of moving far too slowly to develop viable alternative-drive and electric vehicles that can help tackle the twin problems of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and city pollution.
"We still have no fully developed and price-competitive mass production electric vehicle available," Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on Monday.
Whereas Toyota’s Prius, an electric-gasoline hybrid, has been on the road for years and Nissan’s electric car Leaf with lithium ion batteries is due to go on the market in the US by late 2010, no German manufacturer expects to have a market-ready electric car until 2013.
In general, despite electric vehicles having been around longer than those propelled by the internal combustion engine, reasonably- priced electric cars that are capable of taking a family on more than a city jaunt are still not on sale.
The Germany government is now trying turn the country’s dominance in the high-technology, luxury-car sector into a market lead in electric vehicles.
On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel led a summit of chiefs of the car industry as well as energy providers and policy experts in Berlin to launch the so-called National Electric Mobility Platform.
Merkel’s aim is to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. "The competition with other countries around the world must now be taken up stronger than ever," she said at the summit.
To that end the national platform set up seven committees to drive government-industry cooperation, each representing an area of technology, from lithium ion batteries to integration of electricity networks, although no major promise of state funding for any of them was made.
The government says that since early 2009, over 500 million euros of state money has flowed into research and development of electric vehicles.
Since 2009 the car industry itself has been active in two major pilot projects in Berlin, which seek to build experience of how electric vehicles would work in the real world.
The first, which involves the BMW Mini E, is run by energy provider Vattenfall, and has let 50 of the electric vehicles loose on the public with the proviso that they report their findings.
A similar system is operated by Daimler and utility RWE, with a battery-powered Smart car as the test electric vehicle.
In each system, the participant gets a car and a charging device installed in their home, to which the electric car gets connected for recharging.
The Mini E takes about 4 hours for a full charge, which Vattenfall has designated to come exclusively from wind energy, a renewable source of which there is plenty in blustery northern Germany. In this way the CO2 reducing effects of driving an electric vehicle are maximized.
"In normal commuter use, there are plenty of our test users who say they only have to recharge the car once every three days," Vattenfall spokesman Andreas Weber told.
But the range limitations of electric car lithium ion batteries, less than 200 kilometres on a single charge, are still the major hurdle that needs to be overcome.
Another is the convenience, or lack of it, of finding somewhere to charge the car: If you don’t have a garage to put your electric car in, where do you charge it up?
Weber says that the next stage of the pilot project will involve street-mounted loading columns that will allow inner-city apartment dwellers to connect their electric cars to the grid.
The National Electric Mobility Platform is to present a report by the end of 2010. It will then be seen, if, as claimed by Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle, that Germany can "re-invent the automobile for the 21st century." Next year, Volkswagen plans to release a fleet of 500 electric cars Golfs for testing.
The National Electric Mobility Platform creates seven working groups for technological cooperation between industry and government, which is due to present an interim report by the end of 2010.
"The automobile industry will be investing a likely 20 billion euros (26 billion dollars) per year in research and development over the next several years, a significant portion of which will be into electric mobility, fuel efficient vehicles and other energy-saving measures," a summit communique said.
Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle said mass production in Germany needs to happen quickly to strengthen the key automobile production sector. "Electric vehicles promise a new world of mobility," he said.
According to the latest reports from the German Association for Electrical, Electronic and Information Technologies (VDE), most batteries for testing cars can only last 130 km on average with one charge and each would cost about 5,000 euros ($6,650) to 8,000 euros ($10,640).
Some new high-capacity batteries might cost as much as 15,000 euros ($19,950), amounting for two-thirds of the cost of an electric car. Moreover, many testing electricity cars need to be recharged for hours long at a high-voltage station before continuing the journey.
At present, the battery range, recharging time and price were all unacceptable to most modern drivers who have been used to convenient, steady gasoline automobiles for decades, some experts said.