Electric cars may help cut down on fossil fuel use, but their limited range and high sticker price have so far been a drag on sales. European cities are using electric car-sharing schemes to make them more familiar to potential buyers.
The cities make them available at key transit hubs to give commuters easy access, and the experience shows that travelers will gradually adapt to recharging.
Planners see more possibilities than just moving away from combustion engines. Some want to take conventional cars off the road while simultaneously integrating electric vehicles into distributed energy grids. Researchers say car batteries could act as temporary storage devices helping to balance out energy fluctuations now hobbling Germany’s much-heralded energy transition.
"It requires a systemic approach where mobility and energy are merged together," says Frank Wolter, project coordinator of the research project BeMobility at the Innovation Center for Mobility and Societal Change, a German think tank and consultancy now carrying out some of the largest electromobility field trials in Europe.
I met Wolter after signing out an electric car at the regional Sudkreuz (Southern Cross) railway station on the outskirts of central Berlin. The car, a Fiat 500, is offered by Deutsche Bahn via its Flinkster brand, now the largest car-sharing service in Germany, with 300,000 customers in nearly 1,000 stations.
Find a car? There’s an app for that
The drive is entirely silent. More impressive is the way in which I’m accessing my ride — via an open-platform smartphone app — along with the location of my pickup: an open lab for micro smart grid connectivity that sits inside one of the most active transit stations in the city.
Bright-blue solar panels sprout like mushrooms atop a movable pedestal. There are also two vertical wind turbines on the station roof. Together, the two systems generate enough electricity to power 10 charging points for electric cars, five charging points for electric bikes and an inductive charging system for an electric bus.
Deutsche Bahn, the operator of the station, says the plan is for the station to become energy independent. There are now roughly 500,000 local networks like this in Germany, yet only a few that have the ability to intelligently use car batteries to store electricity and feed it into the grid during periods when power demand spikes.
One of those, a micro smart grid on the campus of the European Energy Forum (EUREF), lies in an old industrial complex just down the road from Sudkreuz. It is equipped with smart meters and bidirectional charging stations, and here scientists and engineers have spent the past six years testing out ways to construct a business model that would help car renters both consume and store electricity for the grid.
Daimler and Peugeot have signed deals to have their own car-sharing services, Car2Go and Multicity, made available through Flinkster’s multimodal ticketing platform. When disembarking from my train at the Sudkreuz station, I have five car-sharing providers to choose from. There’s more than 10 pieces of information at my disposal, including the location of rentable bike hires, taxis, bus pickup locations and details on the local traffic situation.
Next year, researchers at the EUREF campus will begin moving energy from parked electric vehicles to the grid. The campus currently generates 30 percent of its own energy — through a combination of solar, wind, geothermal, and combined heat and power.
"We are going to double that and showcase how it stabilizes the national grid and local grid, as well," Wolter said. "That’s the big idea."
Berlin now stands as one of four showcase cities in Germany that are struggling with versions of this "big idea." The other three — Stuttgart, Munich and Hannover — are home to Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen. Each is pushing some form of car sharing in order to gain product positioning, said Oleksii Korniichuk of the management consultancy Arthur D. Little, publisher of a new report assessing global electromobility in ride-sharing schemes.
In Stuttgart, for instance, the entire electric fleet operates on a car-sharing basis. More than 300 charging points were built by the local utility, EnBW.
The showcase cities enable the car companies to compete in the international arena, Korniichuk said. The shift toward Asia and, in particular, China as the leading region for electric-vehicle sales growth is an unmistakable driver. China launched its first e-car-sharing offerings in October, with Daimler already in the Chinese market and BMW soon to follow.
Helping carmakers and cities
But in many ways, Germany is playing from behind. Of the roughly 40 million cars cruising on German roads today, only 24,000 are electric. By contrast, in the United States, 223,600 electric cars have been registered so far. In Japan, it’s 88,500; in Europe, its two regions that don’t even produce electric cars themselves are leading the race (as a percentage of total new car sales) — namely, Holland (38,200) and Norway (25,700).
Observers cite anemic government support as one of the main reasons for Germany’s slow start. Over the past four years, German carmakers have pumped €17 billion into the development of electric mobility — backed by a paltry €1.5 billion worth of government subsidies (€1 currently equals $1.12). At the same time, there’s been little investment in charging infrastructure.
That’s now changing thanks, in part, to the European Union finally agreeing on a standard charge plug. Its TEN-T Program, announced in early February, will install 155 chargers in the next year across Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged a ramp-up in investments that could see an additional 400 charging posts at motorway service stations across the country by the end of 2017.
Some of these will be hydrogen-fueled and are part of a Daimler initiative. Others may include fast 20-minute "supercharging stations" now used by Tesla Motors to extend the driving range to 209 kilometers (130 miles). Plug-in lithium-ion batteries generally run 100 kilometers on one charge, thus limiting their use to urban environments in which public transport offerings can be commingled together with private services.
A ramp-up in e-cars would also be good news for cities like Berlin, which are experiencing a surge in population growth. Roughly 40,000 new inhabitants arrived in Berlin last year. The trend is expected to continue, putting additional pressure on an urban infrastructure that’s seen an exponential growth in inner-city car traffic, a shift that is so large that it begins to crowd out other essential services.