Threat of city diesel ban electrifies carmakers
Frankfurt motor show full of vehicles with batteries Industry still banking on strong sales of gas guzzlers
When Angela Merkel addressed Frankfurt’s motor show this week, it was not to a backdrop of gas guzzlers but displays of noiseless electric Golfs, South Korean hybrids and Japanese fuel-cell cars.
The UK and France have promised to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, while carmakers including Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover have pledged that future models will be electric. German cities plagued by pollution, including Munich, home of BMW, are mulling banning diesels from their centres.
The summer of love for battery cars prompted editorials heralding the end of the internal combustion engine. One bank forecast that all new car sales in Europe would be electric within 20 years. Meanwhile, diesel car values have plummeted.
So it is no surprise that electric cars are centre stage at the Frankfurt motor show, which opens to the public today.
BMW is showing off a new version of its popular i3 battery-powered car and new battery-powered Minis. Its German rival Mercedes-Benz has introduced an futuristic electric concept car, the EQA, which has pride of place at the centre of its display, and the company’s chief executive has promised that all models from 2022 will be electrified to some degree.
France’s Renault unveiled a electric concept car that could double as a backup battery for the home. Japan’s Honda launched a boxy battery-powered concept car, the Urban EV, which European motorists will be able to buy in 2019.
“This is not some vision of the distant future,” said Honda’s chief executive, Takahiro Hacigo, as he also pledged that all new models in Europe would soon be either hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fully electric. South Korea’s Hyundai said more than half the models it sells in Europe by 2020 would be battery-powered.
Is the internal combustion engine’s reign ending? Carmakers here do not believe that, despite the rhetoric and prominent battery models at Frankfurt.
“That’s just hype,” said BMW’s Robert Irlinger, of the notion that conventional engines are dead. Irlinger, who heads the firm’s “i” division, expects electric models to make up only 15%-20% of sales by 2025.
“There is a change and we are really starting with electrified cars but we do not hide our normal cars,” he said, adding that BMW was putting a “huge amount of money” into battery-powered cars.
One Mercedes-Benz executive said that with €10bn (£8.8bn) committed to electric vehicles it was, if anything, overinvesting in the technology compared with its peers. “It’s something that might be overhyped,” said Jürgen Schenck, the company’s head of e-drive integration, of the suggestion that petrol and diesel cars are finished.
“We’re going on with diesel … it is a good technology for [cutting] emissions.” A ban on diesels entering German cities would, he claimed, be a “crazy idea”.
The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) argues that diesel is still the only serious way to meet EU carbon targets, despite concerns over air quality. Dieter Zetsche, ACEA president, said: “Any rash move away from this technology [diesel] would make it harder to meet the [EU] commission’s targets.”
With electric and plug-in hybrid cars making up just 1.2% of new car sales in Europe today, he called for a reality check on how big a contribution they could make to carbon cuts. “The reality is the market uptake of these vehicles remains low. It’s not due to a lack of availability: all ACEA members are expanding their portfolios of electric vehicles, you can see proof of that on display here,” said Zetsche.
“We don’t see the immediate death of the combustion engine,” said Joe Bakaj, vice-president of product development at Ford in Europe, which sees more efficient diesel as the most cost-effective way to cut carbon emissions in the short term.
“We’re not seeing a strong pull [from customers] on battery electric vehicles. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of hype, but there aren’t a lot of customer numbers.” He blames their limited driving range, high cost and a shortage of charging points.
The issue of the limited charging point infrastructure is cited by many carmakers at Frankfurt as a barrier to the greater takeup of electric cars. Steven Armstrong, Ford of Europe’s president, said investment was needed in ageing infrastructure.
“This is particularly true of the challenge facing our efforts to scale up the operation of electric vehicles in cities where we already have a strained energy grid,” he said, unveiling a joint venture with Aldi, Daimler and Porsche to fit fastcharging points on Europe’s motorways.
However, most carmakers agree that the future will probably be electric. “There isn’t a plan B; this is plan A: we go electric,” said Schenck at Mercedes-Benz.
There are plenty of reasons an electric switch might come sooner than many think: a higher oil price, changes in taxation and, most worrying for the European motor industry, the diesel exclusion zones being debated in many European cities.
A Mercedes-Benz electric concept car, the EQA, at the Frankfurt motor show. The manufacturer is investing €10bn in electric cars