No Connection E-Cars Running on Empty

Electric cars remain unattractive to most German consumers because there aren’t enough public outlets to charge them.
Unplugged is not always good.

The auto industry has turned out electric cars for every taste. There are Electro-Smarts and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs for fans of small, easy-to-park models. There is the cool BMW i3 compact for trendy eco-freaks and, of course, the luxury Tesla Model S for those with a big wallet to match their big conscience.

The trouble in Germany is, almost no one wants to own one. About 24,000 electric cars hum on German streets today – too few in the eyes of politicians and industry, which had set a goal of 100,000 for this year.

Environmentally friendly Germans are embracing organic foods and the nation’s shift to renewable energy, but sustainability arguments lose their power when it comes to cars and mobility. Even BMW’s intensive efforts to market its i-Class e-cars have drawn a wan response.

Realistically, the only person who can buy an electric car today is someone who lives in a house, duplex or townhouse with its own garage – because the vehicle has to plug in to an outlet. Most electric vehicles can only travel 100 to 200 kilometers on a single charge. And the number of public charging stations is underwhelming.

In June, there were a little more than 2,200 stations with about 4,700 outlets. In contrast, Germany has more than 14,300 gas stations. So the only person with a secure and always-available charging place is someone who actually owns the outlet.

Charging difficulties for potential buyers outweigh all the inducements to buy electrical cars, such as tax rebates or cash awards from the state.

However, homeowners tend to live outside cities and travel more frequently by car to work or shop. Most electric cars can manage the usual distances back and forth. But Germans don’t like to cut it too close when planning trips. And things can get tight with an electrical car, especially when it’s hot or cold outside and air-conditioning or heating have to do their part.

The pioneering consumers who might actually buy an electric car – who are probably younger and more driven by environmental awareness – mostly live in rented apartments in renovated, old buildings in the hip districts of Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, where they don't have outlets to plug in electric cars.

A look at websites where electric-car drivers can search for charging stations shows that few are available in these urban areas. And few people will walk hundreds of meters just to park their cars at an electric-charging station, especially when they tend to be always occupied.

Innovative charging outlets built into lamp posts won’t solve this problem – even if skeptical city officials could be persuaded to install them in significant numbers.

Charging difficulties for potential buyers outweigh all the inducements to buy electrical cars, such as tax rebates or cash awards from the state. In order to win over this group, the charging process would have to be as easy as filling up the gas tank today.

A sufficient number of rapid-charging outlets at gas stations and in special parking lots would be one solution. Ideally, a certain number could be reserved by a smartphone-app, which would also show when the battery is full.

But that alone won’t be enough. Cars in the mid-price range, which can run up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) on a single charge, are unsuitable for spontaneous trips. As long as they can’t travel farther than that, there won’t be 100,000 electric autos humming along German roads, even in five years from now.


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