German EV sales go nowhere

The government’s new 4,000-euro bonus for electric vehicles is a dud. Why are the Germans so reluctant to buy EVs? And why is there is little support for e-bikes? Craig Morris takes a look.

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Electric cars at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin; most Germans have been reluctant to buy EVs (Photo by Avda, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Read English blogs, and you are likely to think that electric cars are going to oust combustion engines by 2025. Case in point: my colleague Michael Barnard’s snarky list of things EV owners miss about their old gas or diesel cars—you know, the cost, the smell, the inefficiency, etc. Of course, one could easily make such an ironic list for EVs as well, and it would include the cost, “range anxiety,” etc. But another journalist, David Roberts, has you covered: “Electric vehicles can go far enough. People just don’t know it yet.”

Caption: Der Spiegel complains about sales of electric mountain bikes being possibly covered by a subsidy. But when I saw the cobblestone roads and awful bike lanes in and around Berlin, the first thing I wanted was super-fat tires – for safety reasons! Electric support then became necessary because the bike is so hard to get moving. In the photo above, the bike lane is not even wide enough for my bike, and to get off it I have to cross an actual curb some two centimeters high marking the border between the sidewalk and bike lane – where any Dutch city would simply paint a line. Oh Germany… (Photo: Craig Morris)

Der Spiegel complains about sales of electric mountain bikes being possibly covered by a subsidy. But when I saw the cobblestone roads and awful bike lanes in and around Berlin, the first thing I wanted was super-fat tires, for safety reasons! Electric support then became necessary because the bike is so hard to get moving. In the photo above, the bike lane is not even wide enough for my bike, and to get off it I have to cross an actual curb some two centimeters high marking the border between the sidewalk and bike lane, where any Dutch city would simply paint a line. Oh Germany… (Photo: Craig Morris)

There’s truth to both articles. And yet, both sound a bit like wishful thinking. In May, Germany got a bonus for EVs (4,000 euros off the sticker price) and hybrids (3,000). We now have the sales figures for the first three months, and they are sobering: 3,000 vehicles. In comparison, some 1.2 million new cars were purchased in the first three months of Germany’s Cash for Clunkers policy of 2009 (in German). The problem, as I explained when the new EV bonus was announced, is that 4,000 euros doesn’t even come close to covering the extra expense for an EV—not just in terms of the upfront purchase price, but over the car’s entire service life.

In return, you get the usual inconveniences. I cannot charge at home for instance; in fact, I cannot even park at home. Most Germans park somewhere on the street, not in the same spot every night on suburban driveways. Charging stations are needed everywhere cars park. Germany only has 5,250 such stations. They, at least, are being added quickly; the government has provided 300 million euros to increase the number to 15,000 by 2020, mainly in parking lots. And that figure does not include charging stations to be added at the 400 autobahn rest areas in the country (in German).

A ban on conventional car sales would also be a strong signal. The German Greens issued a call for such a ban by 2030 last week (in German). They are currently in the opposition, but parliamentary elections are being held next fall. German weekly Die Zeit asked its readers whether Hamburg should ban diesels in town, and a clear majority of 63 percent said yes (in German). Only 14 percent completely opposed such a ban—even though 24 percent said they own a diesel. Obviously, some diesel owners (like me) support a ban on diesel.

What about e-bikes?

As long as we focus on EVs, however, we are pursuing industry policy (to save carmakers), not environmental policy (to save civilization). In fact, the upcoming era of self-driving cars could be bad if people abandon public transportation, cycling, and walking—each of which is better for the environment than EVs.

Fortunately, the German Transport Club VCD has begun calling for a 4,000 euro bonus for electric bikes as well (in German). But the government won’t budge; more than half a million electric bikes were sold last year alone, so Berlin says the market is doing fine already and needs no further support. Most e-bikes start at more than 2,000 euros and can quickly reach 5,000.

The battery on my e-bike costs a whopping 700 euros alone. I ride about 100 km with one full charge at an electricity cost of around 12.5 cents. Some 500 charging cycles are guaranteed (more are possible, but the range drops), but that number means that one full charge costs 1.40 euros. The battery costs 12 times more than the electricity! My e-bike thus only pays for itself in terms of health.

With EVs, battery life may also prove to be a limiting factor in terms of affordability, but that’s a topic we’ll have to come back to later. For now, the main takeaway is that, when it comes to electric mobility, don’t believe the hype—we’re not there yet!

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

6 Comments

  1. S. Herb says

    An additional factor, compared to the US, is the smaller number of families with 2 cars, which makes it easier to experiment. My perception is that many Germans feel the range limitation as a concrete loss of freedom (‘if I want I can drive to Geneva on one tank of gas’). I would be interested to see some ‘psychological’ comparisons with the Netherlands, where adoption has been much higher.

  2. Dr. Josef Pesch says

    What we have seen is that costs for a small E-car have come down massively from somewhere above 30.000 Euro to just above half that (if you include the Germany subsidy for E-cars). If the government’s approach was less as half-hearted as it is, more progress could be made: more E-cars => better E-infrastructure => more E-cars.

    Range is a issue only for those who read too many motor-journalists who still are proud of “petrol in their blood” (with all the toxins in petrol, it is hardly surprising that their writing is not up to E-cars). For most uses a range of 150 km will do. For the one trip to Genua (the urge to watch the sunset on a Mediterranian shore) a car-sharing car may be of help (the booking card comes free with a Bahncard 50) – or a TGV ticket to Marsaille?

    Yes, there are those, who need the powerful growl of an engine … This indeed is a psychological problem some males, in particular, seem to have. If ignored, it will go away with time without further treatment.

  3. James Wimberley says

    Why does Craig think that service costs for EVs are a negative? All the reports I’ve seen indicate that lifetime service costs are much, much lower. There a very few moving parts to wear out. The only substantive issue is possible early replacement of the whole battery, but thus fear seems to be receding with experience.

  4. James Wimberley says

    Why does Craig think that service costs for EVs are a negative? All the reports I’ve seen indicate that lifetime service costs are much, much lower. There a very few moving par Its to wear out. The only substantive issue is possible early replacement of the whole battery, but thus fear seems to be receding with experience.

  5. With incentives and longer range EVs coming to the market in the near future I would expect to see some acceleration over time. As people see their neighbours drive EVs, more chargers in place, as they learn about lower running costs it should get better.

  6. Here in my Berlin suburb town – outside of Berlin city state limits, under Brandenburg’s administration – we get bike paths that are either painted on the road, or part of the pedestrian walkway, but only marked by differently colored flagstones or even just by a strip of differently shaped, but still flat flagstones in the middle. and they’re usually about a meter wide or a bit more, excepting a few short “problem stretches” that they haven’t got to yet because they’d need to rip out the entire street and reorganize the spacing. Which they are doing, but you know, money’s always tight in East German communities, so it’s a slow process. My guess is that these narrow bikepaths are necessary in Berlin in particicular because of the closely built-up environment. You can’t very well make the street any wider when there are houses right along the sides, and you can’t turn every road into a one-way street to make space for wider walkways. In smaller towns, the main traffic routes and shopping “main streets” are usually old, broad alleys or even part of the federal highway system, so they were planned wider from the start. Plus, at least in my town, most of the narrow little side streets going off the main thoroughfares have been made one-way streets for cars, if they are used for commercial real estate, to allow for safer access to the shops for pedestrians and people on bicycles. In my experience, the use of relatively narrow streets as both major car traffic thoroughfares and shopping/residential area happens more often in cities, especially old ones like Berlin – and the street you pictured clearly is a major traffic lifeline, otherwise they wouldn’t have needed the extra space for the bus stop. In contrast, with the smaller residential streets here, they don’t usually bother building bikepaths at all, because no-one but the few people living there are going to use them anyway and there’s not much car traffic so biking on the road isn’t very dangerous. Outside of the areas busy with pedestrians, the bikepaths often are even properly asphalted, so you could use them with a touring bike – in fact, those bikepaths generally are part of some long-distance bike-hiking route, judging by the signposts and tourist maps. This makes me think the inner-city flagstone paving that you complain about might be intentional, to force you to use a slower city bike, instead of zooming past children, elderly people and people blocking the way with dog leashes at car-like speeds. Similarly, I’m guessing the curb, which must be peculiar to Berlin because I’ve never seen anything like it out here, is probably designed to keep you from swerving into pedestrians carelessly. But then, out here those curbs wouldn’t normally be necessary, as there usually are alley trees between the bikepath and the pedestrians, or the bikepath is on the road, or the area just isn’t used much by pedestrians in the first place. again, there’s just much more pedestrian traffic in a big city like Berlin, especially in low-income areas. It’s not unusual for Berlin citizens to never even bother to get a driving license. So it makes sense for the Berlin administration to be more protective of their pedestrian population and build in “speed bumps” and those curbs to force bicyclers to go slow and careful if they’re sharing the walkway. Though I will say that if you insist on not using the extensive Berlin public transport like a normal commuter and instead want to do such a long commute solely by bike, they should allow you to just use the road with the cars, even if there’s a separate bikepath. after all, you aren’t going much slower than them. Maybe there should be a licensing process for e-bikes and speed bikes, so they can be used like mopeds.

    By the way, Chris Nelder of the Energy Transition podcast just did an interesting episode about China a few weeks ago. Turns out, the e-bike industry there is huge – like, hundreds of millions of e-bikes huge, if I remember correctly – and at considerably lower prices than what these things cost in the West. Weird that they’re not trying to market those to the rest of the world.

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