The German government has reached its target of one million electric cars on the roads only six months later than planned. What do you think this success is due to?
The state subsidies are a major incentive and have played an important role, but this wasn’t the only reason. I would also put the growing sales of electric cars down to a change in attitude and a growing acceptance among the public of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in particular. Before that there was a rapid increase in sales of hybrids, but now things appear to have changed. BEVs seem to be much more popular than cars with hybrid drives. This is also noticeable on the roads. Particularly in cities, electric cars are becoming a much more common sight and range anxiety seems to be less of a problem. Until now, hybrid cars have been the vehicle of choice for people who felt that BEVs did not have a long enough range. And in addition, cars with a hybrid drive are not exactly the ideal solution in terms of efficiency. You need a car weighing 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms in order to transport a payload of 100 or 200 kilograms, which isn’t particularly efficient.
In your view what role does the debate about the ban on combustion engines play?
It may have contributed to the increased interest in electric cars. But in my view the growing presence of BEVs on the roads has had a much more powerful psychological effect than the fear of a possible fall in the resale value of cars with gasoline or diesel engines. To sum it up, you could say that the much greater interest in electric cars is down to a combination of herd psychology and financial incentives.
What else needs to be done to make electric mobility more attractive?
The public charging infrastructure needs to be expanded, of course, for example on busy transit routes such as freeways. At the moment, electric mobility is primarily an urban phenomenon. We need to remember that it is not only the powertrains, but also the whole nature of mobility that will change. Alongside electrification, solutions such as car sharing and mobility on demand are likely to become more widespread in the years to come. And highly automated and autonomous driving will enable completely new vehicle concepts to be developed in the future. If cars are used by several people, you need different body designs, for example, and aerodynamics is less important in urban traffic.
There is a real war of words taking place on the subject of technology neutrality. What is your view on the alternatives to BEVs, such as hydrogen-powered cars?
Because of its many advantages, electrification is unstoppable in many areas. But at the same time, we do need an increase in the use of hydrogen in Germany, for example in the chemical industry, for synthetic avgas and in metal processing. In this context I can also see fuel cells being used in long-haul trucks and on non-electrified rail lines. But in cars the direct electrification of powertrains has clear benefits. And technology neutrality only makes sense when there are genuine alternatives.
New manufacturers of electric cars are entering the market, for example from China. What risk do they present for established carmakers?
Initially, the industry needs to adjust to two major trends. Firstly, cars will largely be defined by their software in the future. Secondly, batteries will play a decisive role because they will determine the price of cars. I think we can assume that the competition in the automotive sector will increase significantly. That creates opportunities for new manufacturers, as Tesla has demonstrated, for example. However, you need to invest a lot in research and development and have large amounts of capital at your disposal to be a big player in the area of software – for highly automated driving, for example – and battery technology. We have recently carried out a study that investigated these changes.