Threat of city diesel ban elec­tri­fies car­mak­ers

Frank­furt mo­tor show full of ve­hi­cles with bat­ter­ies In­dus­try still bank­ing on strong sales of gas guz­zlers

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Adam Vaughan Frank­furt

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.

Pho­to­graph: Frank Rumpen­horst/ AFP/Getty

A Mercedes-Benz elec­tric con­cept car, the EQA, at the Frank­furt mo­tor show. The man­u­fac­turer is in­vest­ing €10bn in elec­tric cars

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