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.
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.”
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!