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German Automakers Falter in Meeting Million-Electric Goal

German Automakers Falter in Meeting Million-Electric Goal
Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, connects an electric charging cable to a VW E-Golf automobile, produced by Volkswagen AG, following the German-Chinese signing ceremony at Volkswagen AG's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, on April 24, 2012. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

As Joachim Sander looks for a new car, he’s thinking it might be time to go electric. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will need the help of the Frankfurt IT consultant -- and a lot more like him -- to keep her word.

Three years after Merkel said she wants to see 1 million battery-powered cars on German roads by 2020, there has been scant progress: On Jan. 1, only 7,114 of Germany’s 43.4 million passenger vehicles were electrics. Even adding hybrids powered with both electricity and conventional fuels brings the number to just 72,109.

“Our plans and projects are ambitious, but we have a good chance of fulfilling them,” Merkel said at a government conference on electric vehicles in Berlin yesterday.

Skeptics say that even with German automakers poised to introduce a slew of electrics, the country is unlikely to reach Merkel’s target. A goal of 600,000 electrics and plug-in hybrids in Germany by 2020 would be more realistic, said Thomas Schlick, a partner at consultancy Roland Berger.

“After the politically driven hype that we’ll soon all drive electric cars, there’s a certain letdown,” Schlick said. “There won’t be a sudden jump, but a gradual evolution, just as with every new technology.”

Like drivers everywhere, Germans have been slow to embrace electrics. The cars can cost 10,000 euros ($12,900) more than similar gasoline-powered versions. Charging takes time and is difficult for city dwellers without a garage, so many buyers worry about running out of power on the road. And concerns over surging oil prices have eased as new energy resources are tapped.

Switching Confidence

“Consumers will only buy electric cars if they are reasonably priced and there is enough charging infrastructure,” Siim Kallas, Europe’s transport commissioner, said at the Berlin conference. “They don’t yet feel confident enough to switch.”

Roland Berger has lowered its global production forecast for electrics and plug-in hybrids by 194,000 vehicles, to 1.1 million cars through 2015. Germany will account for 205,000 of those, making it the No. 3 producer, the consultancy says. Thanks to the plug-in version of Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s i-Miev, Japan will be the leader in electric vehicle production with 283,000 cars, followed by the U.S. with 267,000 vehicles, according to the estimate.

Electric vehicles could become more mass market after 2020, Volkmar Denner, head of auto-parts maker Robert Bosch GmbH, said at the conference. “I expect that by 2020, electric cars will have a range of at least 300 kilometers,” ”he said. This would be about double the current range of most electrics.

German Offerings

German automakers are stepping up to do their part. Daimler AG, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Volkswagen AG plan to introduce 16 new electric or hybrid models by the end of next year, versus one today, according to Henning Kagermann, who is overseeing Merkel’s electric vehicle initiative.

“Customers will have plenty of choice,” Kagermann, a former chief executive officer of software maker SAP AG, said in a telephone interview.

Germany’s only electric currently on the market is Daimler’s Smart two-seater. The company has delivered about 2,000 of the cars, made for the past year at a factory in France. The Stuttgart-based carmaker plans to produce 6,000 of them in 2013. At 18,910 euros for the car and 65 euros a month to rent the battery, the Smart undercuts most rivals.

“People are willing to dig deep into their pockets” to buy an electric, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said at the Berlin conference. “But not too deep.”

Daimler Expansion

Next year, Daimler is expanding its electric fleet with the van-like B-Class. And for those willing to dig much deeper into their pockets, it expects to add the SLS AMG E-Cell, a 416,500-euro gull-wing supercar with four electric engines that can propel it to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour in 3.9 seconds.

Sales of electrics in Germany, which accounts for a quarter of the European auto market, have been slowed by a lack of the kinds of incentives available in other countries. In France, the government pays 7,000 euros of the cost of battery-powered vehicles and 4,000 euros for hybrids. Automakers have sold 10,761 electrics in France -- a market 40 percent smaller than Germany’s -- since 2006, according to CCFA, an industry group.

Germany isn’t planning any direct buying incentives, according to Philipp Roesler, the minister of economics and technology. The government has instead opted to support research projects with more than 1 billion euros, Roesler said at the Berlin conference.

“Incentives won’t cause the great leap,” he said.

Renault Setback

Renault and its Japanese partner, Nissan Motor Co., are investing 4 billion euros in electrics. Renault has the widest product range of any car brand, and has sold more than 25,000 electrics worldwide. The two aim to deliver 1.5 million by 2016.

Yet they, too, have faced setbacks: Renault supplied cars to Better Place LLC, an Israeli company that built stations that could change batteries on electric vehicles in minutes. Better Place filed a motion for liquidation with an Israeli court on May 26.

At the end of this year, BMW plans to introduce its first electric, the i3, a city car featuring a lightweight carbon-fiber body. Next year, the company expects to add a 100,000-euro plug-in sportster called the i8, powered by an electric engine over the front axle and a three-cylinder combustion engine at the rear.

Porsche Hybrid

Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker, is starting its electric offensive in the fourth quarter with an electric version of its Up! small car. It will have a range of 150 kilometers and weigh as much as 200 kilograms (440 pounds) more than combustion-engine variants. An E-Golf will follow next year, the company says.

Porsche, VW’s sportscar brand, will start deliveries of its 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid at the beginning of 2014. The model, to be limited to 918 vehicles, will run 768,026 euros in Germany, Porsche’s most expensive car ever. With a 4.6-liter V8-engine and two electric motors that combine to pump out more than 880 horsepower, the 918 will consume 3 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers -- the equivalent of 78 miles per gallon.

In July, Porsche’s Panamera four-door coupe will get a plug-in hybrid variant that will be able to travel 36 kilometers on batteries alone. At 110,409 euros, the vehicle costs about 8,600 euros more than the comparable gasoline version.

A3 E-tron

VW’s Audi brand will introduce its Audi A3 E-tron wagon at the end of the year. The plug-in hybrid has a pure electric range of 50 kilometers and will consume 1.5 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, or 157 miles per gallon.

Merkel’s government has refrained from allocating money directly to selected companies, avoiding some of the controversy the U.S. administration has faced since granting loans that some borrowers failed to pay off.

After posting its first quarterly profit this year, Tesla Motors Inc., led by billionaire-investor Elon Musk, in May was the first to repay a $465 million loan given under a program implemented by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Tesla’s pioneering efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in Frankfurt, where consultant Joachim Sander is leaning strongly toward buying a four-seat Tesla Model S.

“In terms of range, speed, passenger comfort and cargo space, there’s no alternative to the Tesla,” Sander said as he prepared to take a Model S for a test drive. “No other vehicle compares to it.”

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