German parliamentary elections are coming up this fall, and the German Green Party has adopted a plan for 100% electric vehicles by 2030 for new car sales. But one leader of the party remains skeptical. His criticism showed that we have to get our heads around how fundamentally different electric cars will be. Craig Morris looks at the debate.
Winfried Kretschmann is the Minister-President of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Mercedes and Porsche. As such, Kretschmann is one of the most powerful politicians in the Green Party. But his stance on the automotive sector is not in line with the party’s, as recent comments he made privately to a party colleague (video in German, apparently covertly recorded) at the party’s convention reveal:
Imagine what’s going to happen if we have 5 million electric vehicles on the road. Where are they going to fill up?… Think about the normal filling stations we have today. At the big ones, there might be space for 10 cars to fill up simultaneously. Except that electric cars are going to need 20 minutes. How is that supposed to work? You don’t know what you’re talking about! But you tell people that you can do this by 2030. That’s ridiculous!… You can say these things if you want, I don’t care, but then you have to be satisfied with six or eight percent (of the vote).
The Greens are currently struggling to stay above 5% of the vote in order to be eligible for seats in Parliament; parties that get fewer votes are not eligible for party representation. So Kretschmann is warning his party colleagues not to take such a “radical” (his word) position, lest voters be scared off.
But there’s a problem with his analysis: electric vehicles will not need filling stations, at least not the ones we have today. Fast charging is possible within 20 minutes, but it shortens the battery’s lifetime. So you will want to charge where your car stands for hours. People will want to charge quickly when they need to drive farther than the car’s range (so on highways), but the rest of time you will want to charge your car wherever you park it. Filling stations will die.
People will charge their cars at home, where possible, overnight. Otherwise, they will want to charge wherever they park: on the streets in front of their city apartments, in the parking lot at work, and in parking lots wherever they go shopping. It’s convenient to charge your car for 30 or 60 minutes while you buy groceries; your car is going to be there anyway.
Kretschmann reveals how poorly he understands electric vehicles when he talks about “filling up” (tanken in the German), but it’s a common misunderstanding. We currently think of charging electric cars as an inconvenience, but in the future we will park somewhere and plug-in in mere seconds. People will look back on making an extra trip to a filling station as a major inconvenience.
A few weeks ago, Kretschmann made another statement that rankled his colleagues. He had recently purchased a large diesel car and justified the purchase by saying he needed a “real car” (in German) because he recently had to tow a ton of sand for his grandchild’s sandbox. A delivery service, which certainly existed, would doubtlessly have been far cheaper than purchasing a car large enough for even the rarest need. Money permitting, we have always purchased cars not to suit our everyday needs, but to make sure the vehicle is the right one for every occasion. Car-sharing (and eventually self-driving cars) will allow us to choose the vehicle we actually need at the time.
In short, Kretschmann’s thinking about cars is old-school. What’s more, he probably isn’t even right in saying that the Greens will scare away voters if they call for all cars sold by 2030 to be electric. On the contrary, Germans are losing their love for diesel; they support bans for diesels in cities.
On the other hand, Kretschmann is right that sales of electric vehicles in Germany are slow right now because of a lack of infrastructure. Last year, only 34,000 EVs were sold, up 33.4% (report in German). As the comment section on that website shows, people willing to buy EVs lack charging options at home, especially in apartment complexes. But at home in Baden-Württemberg, Kretschmann has made his state a leader in expanding charging infrastructure with a budget worth 43.5 million euros (in German). So Kretschmann knows what he’s talking about when he discusses charging stations.
Still, Mercedes and Porsche must be justifiably concerned about the threat of electric cars. But Kretschmann won’t be able to save them, especially if he is wrong and I am right about Germans slowly abandoning diesel for electric. The Greens’ call for all-electric by 2030 might cost them a few votes, but they probably stand to gain many more.