Electric Car Revolution Remains a Distant Prospect


The Frankfurt Motor Show is devoting an entire exhibition hall to electric mobility this year -- but truly marketable electric vehicles are conspicuous by their absence. The technology is being developed more slowly than expected. It will be a long time before the world can bid farewell to the combustion engine.

There will be a new type of racing car soon. It's supposed to look something like a Formula 1 car and drive just as fast -- but with an engine that makes no noise.

The International Automobile Federation (FIA) has announced that a new racing championship series is being developed for the circuit that could ideologically decontaminate the racing world. The plan envisions having automobiles with 700 horsepower electric engines zooming about with absolutely no emissions.

The vision of a green Grand Prix is exactly the kind of message that the 64th International Motor Show (IAA) wants to send. The show, which kicks off this Thursday in Frankfurt, is the industry's premier trade fair, held in the land where the revolution of motorized vehicles once made legends out of names like Daimler and Benz.

With this pedigree, the IAA is meant to provide an overview both of where things are and where they're going. And the direction has rarely seemed so clear-cut: The German government and the domestic automotive industry are both set on transforming Germany into the "lead market for electromobility."

Ambitious Goals

To get closer to this goal, they did something typically German: They set up a committee. Mostly made up of executives and politicians, it is called the National Platform for Electric Mobility (NPE). One of its leading members is a business veteran and auto industry outsider who unfailingly exudes optimism. Henning Kagermann, a former CEO of the German software giant SAP, views the world of transport as facing a "paradigm change." His mission is to get one million electric vehicles on German streets by 2020.

Still, when the IT expert enters Hall 4 of the IAA, it might quickly dawn on him that things take much longer to evolve on the real highway than on the information one. For the first time in IAA history, an entire 20,000-square-meter (5-acre) area will be devoted to electric mobility. Matthias Wissmann, the president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), says this "Hall of Electric Mobility" will provide visitors with a "unique overview of this form of propulsion."

Automotive Irrational Exuberance

But the hall will also highlight the slow the pace of development for this type of drive system. It will still take years for the technology to become viable for the mass market.

"To me, this electric hype is inexplicable," Fritz Indra, a doyen in vehicle development, recently told the trade magazine Automobil Industrie. The honorary professor at Vienna University of Technology and former head engine developer at Opel and General Motors still sees a good deal of "open questions" -- and no satisfying answers.

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