Performance anxiety is putting car-crazy Germans off buying electric vehicles

Gas-guzzlers still rule the roads.
Gas-guzzlers still rule the roads.
Image: EPA/Ronald Wittek
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Germany, the land of diligent recyclers, is often lauded for its eco-credentials, and its ambitious “Energiewende,” the government’s plan to wean the country off coal and nuclear power. However, as far as mobility goes, it’s a country still stubbornly attached to its gas-guzzling autos. Last year, the nation’s car owners were partially responsible for sabotaging its overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany’s Federal Environment Agency said in March that the country pumped the equivalent of 906 million tonnes of CO2 into the air last year, up from 902 million tonnes in 2015—and blamed vehicles for the uptick.

A lot of that is down to trucks, hauling those products that keep Germany king of Europe’s exporters, but private cars are responsible for a chunk of greenhouse gas emissions too. Out of 3.4 million new cars registered in 2016, only 11,000 were fully electric and 47,996 were hybrids. The SUV and offroad segment meanwhile saw a 19% surge in new registrations from the year before to 715,268.

A recent report (link in German) from WWF Germany and renewable power provider LichtBlick notes that Germany lags far behind China and the US when it comes to electric transportation. “Ironically, it is the ‘automobile nation Germany’ that is sleeping through this development,” said Gero Lücking of LichtBlick.

Why are German consumers reluctant to get on board with electric vehicles? It’s all about “RIP” according to Gregor Kolbe, a transport and consumer politics expert at the Federation of German Consumer Organisations—range, infrastructure, and price.

“Sadly it’s true, compared to other EU countries like the Netherlands and Norway, the Germans are doing extremely badly at buying electro or hybrid cars,” Kolbe told Quartz.  While electric cars may suffice for whizzing around town, many Germans like to use their cars to go on weekend trips and vacations, something which heavily influences their purchase decision.

“Germans are used to jumping in their cars and driving 600 or 700, even 1000 kilometers without the need to fill up the tank, and there’s always a gas station nearby,” he said. “Realistically, the range for electro cars is about 150, max 200 kilometers, and the worry about being stranded and not being able to go any further is very big for consumers.”

Although the German government has committed to investing €300 million into increasing the network of charging stations, right now it’s patchy and confusing, especially outside of the main cities. “People who buy an e-car today for the most part have their own charging facility at home, and are not so reliant on public charging structure, which is underdeveloped.” The public charging stations are a mess of different ways to pay, from cash, to cards to pre-pay options—adding to drivers’ anxiety about being stranded mid-journey.

Price is still a huge deterrent. Electricity is cheap right now but electric cars are much more expensive than their diesel or petrol counterparts. And the government incentive of a €4,000 rebate when you buy an electric car has been a flop. It’s simply way too low to make a difference. For example, an electric VW Golf costs upwards of €35,000 ($37,000) while a standard Golf costs between €17,000 and €27,000.

Electric vehicles’ ten-year exemption from car tax, which Germans pay once a year based on engine capacity, is hardly an incentive either: it amounts to saving around €50 per year.

Anxious drivers, long distances, and car prices aside, the powerful German car industry, itself celebrating a bumper 2016 (Porsche just gave its workers a €9,111 bonus each), has been relatively slow to make a serious commitment to e-mobility.

“One reason for this is that German manufacturers were in comparison to other countries, extremely successful,” says Kolbe. “They have good, very in-demand products, and are extremely competitive, so the pressure on them to get active was not as big as on the French.”

Volkswagen’s 2015 emissions-cheating scandal rocked the industry, but hasn’t led to lowered emissions. For the first time since 2007, Daimler failed to lower its average vehicle fleet emissions in 2016 due to demand for SUVs. Daimler research director Olaf Källenius told Handelsblatt (link in German) that trying to meet the EU’s climate regulations of cutting emissions to 100 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2020 will be a “serious challenge.”

Christian Hochfeld, director of the Agora Verkehrswende think tank, told Quartz that its time for the car industry to get worried, as “the sector stands on the cusp of the greatest revolution since the invention of the motor car; and they certainly are concerned—their traditional business model is at stake.

The auto industry lobby is incredibly powerful—no surprise really since the car industry employs more than 800,000 people (link in German) in Germany—and has major clout in Berlin. Joachim Koschnicke, Angela Merkel’s new campaign manager for the election in September, was formerly Opel’s former vice president for European Government Relations, one of Germany’s top lobbyists (link in German) for the car industry.

“Until now, they’ve sold private cars on the basis of combustion engines, and in the future they will have to as mobility providers, sell them on the basis of emissions-free kilometers covered. That’s a huge, completely new challenge,” says Hochfeld.

Of course, a simple speed limit on Germany’s famous autobahn would also go some way to curb the tons of greenhouse-gas emissions from cars—but good luck getting that past the makers of some of the world’s fastest motors, or the consumers who love them.