A pauper’s oath for the automotive industry

Toyota-Mirai-IAA-2015
Toyota Mirai during IAA 2015

Seldom before was it evident just how big the gap between theory and practice can get than it was at the 66th International Motor Show (IAA). Indeed, in the run up to the IAA 2015, the show organizers, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) had said clearly and repeatedly that electric mobility would be a key topic again at this year’s event. In reality, things were very different, however: neither fuel cells nor battery powered vehicles proved to be a major topic at any of the auto manufacturers. Of those present, only Toyota made a clear focus on hybrid vehicles, presenting the new Mirai at the show.

At all of the other large trade show stands, other topics were covered, primarily connectivity and digitalization. Once again, it was sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and large, expensive limousines which took center stage. The word “electric mobility” was only used when the topic of discussion was fuel consumption; thanks to hybrid technology, the CO2 emissions of even the biggest limousines can be reduced considerably in purely mathematical terms.

And it is on this basis that we’re getting closer to the crux of the matter: for the VDA, the definition of electric mobility is any vehicle that is equipped with some kind of an electrical motor, whether it is a Mercedes GLC 350 e 4MATIC or a BMW 740e. It is of no importance how often the charging cable is actually connected during the everyday operations of the plug-in hybrid in question. It appears to be far more important that the fuel consumption can be downscaled drastically on a completely legal basis, so that it is then comparatively easier to comply with the CO2 threshold limits of the new vehicle fleets.

In this respect, it is no longer surprising that Daimler recently stopped production of its Smart Electric Drive models. As German TV channel ARD reported, for a few months, there have been supply problems with the e-Smart, since combustion engines for foreign export have been manufactured on the production lines of the Stuttgart-based auto manufacturer instead of electric cars for Germany. A company spokesman reported that new e-models would first be introduced in the second half of 2016. Right now, this means that it is only the electric B Class which is available to buy through Daimler, although the director of Smart, Annette Winkler, had the following to say about the electric Smart in the spring of this year: “It is popular and is being purchased.”

If it is possible to achieve the specified CO2 threshold values with hybrid limousines which are also more profitable and the emissions values of which have been “dressed up”, however, sales of compact cars can be held back – notwithstanding the demand for them, but to the pleasure of the shareholders.

Similar to the Smart Electric Drive, fuel cell cars are also being treated rather shabbily in the auto industry right now. As explained by the director of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, in an interview in August 2015: “The benefits offered by the fuel cell can now be seen to be lower than they were five years ago.” At the same time that this statement was made, the south German firm decided against being the main sponsor of the World of Energy Solutions (WES) at their home town of Stuttgart again this year.

News items of this kind do not provide the impression of a technology that is being driven forwards. Numerous additional occasions are available right now, however, to consider the setting of priorities in the worlds of politics and business, as well as the appropriate use of the available support funding: in its documentary on “The fairytale of electric mobility”, ARD revealed that it has been consciously accepted that the statistics are sometimes being interpreted incorrectly. In this context, of the 8,463 electric vehicles registered in 2014, almost half were registered to the auto manufacturers themselves. Just 4,814 E-cars were sold to “real” customers, which is why the report talks of “massaged” sales figures.

The number of charging stations in Germany also raises questions: almost everywhere else in Europe it is the number of charging stations which are installed that are counted, and rightly so, but in Germany, it is the “charging points” that are counted. Since most of the charging stations have two connections, this means that in terms of the figures alone, there are assumed to be double the number of stations in Germany than there actually are: we only have 2,500 stations here in Germany.

At the beginning of the year, German TV channel ZDF also reported about the aberrations in the field of electric mobility: the consumer magazine WISO revealed that the charging current for electric cars is sometimes far more expensive than that of the electricity used by households. A test revealed that depending on use, the prices were sometimes three or four times higher at RWE, EnBW and E.On, which is why the report talked of “profiteering”.

The IAA 2015 ultimately confirmed the initial trend: today’s policy of financial support has resulted in some questionable developments. Despite many millions of Euros in taxpayers’ money having been invested in both the battery and fuel cell technology, there remains a lack of suitable framework conditions (incentives or threshold values) to drive the contemporary marketing of the appropriate products. Rather than proceeding on a targeted basis from the field of R&D towards the market, industry and lobbyists alike are repeatedly abusing the trust of the consumers by consciously playing for time and publishing misleading statistics.

In this respect, a greater awareness of responsibility is required from all of the participants, so that firstly, Germany does not completely lose its links with the E-mobility market, and secondly, the support funding that has already been paid out can turn out to be a sensible investment.

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