Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 13:53 UK

Car firms disagree about electric future

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Frankfurt

Tesla electric roadster
The Tesla electric roadster - and not a pigeon in sight

Frankfurt's city streets may not be the best for testing cars, yet accelerating between the traffic lights in a Tesla offers a powerful insight into the electric future that most players in the motor industry are raving about.

Tesla says its new electric roadster accelerates from 0-100 kilometres (0-60 miles) per hour in four seconds and can go on cruising for almost 400 kilometres.

But it also comes with a 99,000 euros ($146,000; £88,000) price tag.

Plans are under way to bring electric cars to the masses, however, with most carmakers at the Frankfurt motor show displaying concepts to illustrate how they see the future.

"The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years," predicts Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of alliance partners Renault and Nissan in a BBC interview. "It is time for zero emission motoring."

Renault-Nissan are investing some 4bn euros in an electric vehicle programme, where some 2,000 engineers and development staff work to make the firm the world leader in this area, observes Global Insight analyst Tim Urquhart.

"Renault is basically betting the future of the company on its bold electric passenger car strategy," he says.

"The cost of developing, marketing and implementing the related infrastructure will mean that there will be little room for error."

Silent cars

If Mr Ghosn and those who think like him are right, then the future looks bleak.

Takeshi Uchiyamada, head of research and development, environmental technologies, at Toyota
If the question is if there have been any major technological developments since then, the answer is no
Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota

At least, that is, if you are a pigeon.

"Normally, when they hear a car they fly away last minute," says the man from Sixt, the car rental firm that handles the German energy company RWE's fleet of electric cars, during the Tesla drive in Frankfurt.

"But when this one comes along, they don't hear it."

Pigeon lives lost may seem trivial when compared to electric cars' potential to slash vehicle emissions and help curb global warming.

But this is not just an issue that is keeping pigeons up at night. If pigeons cannot hear electric cars then perhaps people should worry too?

Not at all, insists Volkswagen's Ulrich Hackenberg as he presses a button on the dashboard of the company's E-Up concept to release a canned sound of a revving engine.

"Electric cars could sound like this in the future," he says.

No major advances

Renault Fluence electric car

The pigeon scenario is an example of the physicists' mantra, that "nothing's for nothing", that every solution poses a new problem.

And with regards to electric motoring, there are plenty of flipsides that cannot be solved by simply pressing a button.

One perhaps surprising sceptic is Takeshi Uchiyamada, head of research and development, environmental technologies, at Toyota.

"The electric vehicle has become a fever and everyone is talking about it," he says during a journalist briefing in Frankfurt.

"But in the 1990s, lots of vehicle manufacturers launched electric vehicles, and Toyota did too.

"And if the question is if there have been any major technological developments since then, the answer is no."

Toyota believes current battery technology, though vital to its petrol-electric hybrid solutions, is merely good enough to power small cars for city driving, just as it was 15 years ago.

Better batteries

Renault-Nissan's Mr Ghosn disagrees. "There are some differences compared with the past," he says, insisting that "we are much more advanced with battery technology than we were five or 10 years ago".

Daimler's Smart car in an unusual position
There are alternatives for how you can store electric power in the car. You can do that with batteries and you can do that with hydrogen, and then go for fuel cells
Dieter Zetsche, Daimler

Already, electric cars can deliver what most people need so the impact of a shift to electric would be huge, he insists.

"Ninety-five per cent of the world's population drives less than 100 kilometres per day," he says, "and we have billions of people on the planet whose prime objective is to acquire a car."

Besides, says Ian Robertson, BMW Group's head of sales and marketing, "the battery manufacturers are advancing so fast at the moment".

"Governments and people around the world are beginning to see the advantages of this," he tells BBC News. "And the electricity generating companies are very keen on this."

Overall emission

A switch to electric cars would send electricity demand soaring, though coming at a time of widespread concern about energy shortages and security of supply, this too creates new challenges.

For electric cars to significantly reduce carbon emissions, the electricity must be created by either renewables - such as solar power or wind turbines - or in nuclear power plants.

Here in Germany, about a quarter of the electricity generation takes place in 17 ageing nuclear power plants and the country is also a world leader when it comes to renewables.

Electric cars could further aid a switch from coal-fired power stations towards either renewables or new nuclear power plants, or both, as they could function as a storage facility for power produced at night when windmills turn and nuclear power is produced regardless of whether anybody wants it.

But though such additional demand would add to the power utilities' revenue, it would not be enough to fund the multi-billion euro investments required in electricity generation in the immediate future.

Without massive investment, it is inconceivable that renewable power sources can emerge fast enough to replace Germany's nuclear power plants, which are all destined for closure.

This would leave Germany with a choice between coal or gas fired power stations, thus reducing any impact a shift towards electric cars would have on overall emission levels.

Paradigm shift

But given that the world's oil reserves will eventually run out, "there's no choice but to go for emission free personal mobility in the future", says Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of carmaker Daimler, owner of Mercedes and Smart.

"The only way I know how to do that is the electric motor," he adds during a journalist briefing in Frankfurt.

"There are alternatives for how you can store electric power in the car. You can do that with batteries and you can do that with hydrogen, and then go for fuel cells."

Both storage facilities are expensive, and both have a number of disadvantages - not least relating to infrastructure such as charging points or hydrogen stations.

But this is changing, Mr Zetsche insists. On Monday this week, Frankfurt's first electric car charging point was unveiled and last week a cross-industry agreement was struck to roll out fuel cell infrastructure in Germany.

Daimler will do its part, hoping to have a fuel cell solution on the market in five years at a price that can compete with Mercedes' own combustion engines.

"The framework is changing, the environment is changing," says Mr Zetsche. "I am convinced we are facing a paradigm shift."

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