Forget that they’re cramped, have a limited driving range and outstrip the average consumer’s pocketbook. The race is on to create a viable electric car.
Germany became the latest country to fast track development of electric cars, the government approving a plan that aims to put 1 million of them on the road by 2020.
The goal is ambitious. Of the 41 million cars in the country, only 1,452 are electric, and Germany is entering an increasingly congested field.
This month alone, Nissan Motor Co. in Japan unveiled the Leaf, an electric car scheduled to go into mass production for a global market in 2012; General Motors touted triple-digit mileage figures for its rechargeable Chevrolet Volt; and President Barack Obama committed $2.4 billion in federal grants to develop next-generation electric vehicles and batteries in the U.S.
To help bring Germany up to speed, the government plans to spend some euro500 million ($705 million) on the plan over the next three years - including euro115 million ($164 million) to establish eight test regions examining how the cars could best be introduced.
It plans to put euro170 million ($242 million) into battery research, making domestic production a priority and ensuring that German experts are trained in the technology.
“It is important that we couple a decreasing dependency on oil imports with not suddenly becoming dependent on battery imports,” Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said.
The massive, sensitive, costly and fast-depleting batteries that take the place of international combustion engines and gasoline are expensive to produce, and countries like South Korea and Japan are far ahead in research and development.
Electric cars are also more limited than their gas-guzzling cousins, running 40 and 120 miles (60 to 200 kilometres) on a charge, while taking anywhere from two to seven hours to fully recharge.
Guttenberg said a market introduction plan would be examined, and financing would be a question for the government that emerges from Germany’s September 27 election.
However, while the plan calls for electric cars to be put on the market starting in 2012, it does not specify what if any incentives might be offered to would-be buyers - a point criticised as a weakness.
Electric cars are becoming a more common sight in European cities where the streets are narrow, parking spots are rare and traffic is thick.
Germany’s Volkswagen AG, has said it hopes to introduce its first electric cars on the market in 2013. Daimler AG, which has been testing an electric version of its two-seater Smart, is working with California-based electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. on developing better battery and electric drive systems.
Tesla has earned praise for its low-slung Roadster, a $109,000 two-seat sports car that can get more than 200 miles on a single charge.
In the U.S., General Motors Co. plans to offer the Volt - a hybrid electric car - next year at a cost of about $40,000.
Elsewhere, rival Mitsubishi Motors Corp. launched an electric vehicle in June, the 4.59 million yen ($48,300) i-MiEV, and other companies have plans in the works.
German officials insisted their country hasn’t missed the boat. Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said even Japan hasn’t yet achieved a “real breakthrough.”
The government noted that the cars’ batteries currently cost up to euro15,000 ($21,000), and wrestling the cost down will be important. They said other measures that will be considered include incentives such as special traffic lanes or parking spots for electric cars.