Munich — The most remarkable thing about Jana Hoeffner’s 1,475km road trip from Stuttgart to Oslo and back was simply how unremarkable it was. In a black Tesla Model S sedan.

Five years ago, making similar journeys across much of Germany in an electric Renault Zoe would have meant tiresome research to avoid running out of power, she says. These days, not so much. Or even at all. "It doesn’t really involve much planning anymore."

Hoeffner, who’s an online editor, is emblematic of a quiet revolution finally taking hold in Europe’s biggest car market. Conventional wisdom held that Germans, proudly sitting at the source of global automotive engineering prowess, would be among the last to trade in their Porsche 911s or Mercedes-Benz S-Class diesels for the limited autobahn range offered in an American-made electric Tesla.

But powered by additional charging sites and improving products, this year, Germany will become the world’s third-largest market for plug-in hybrids and electric cars, surpassing longtime European leader Norway, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The downfall of diesel following Volkswagen’s (VW) widespread cheating on emissions and a mounting public backlash against urban pollution are only adding momentum to the shift.

A particular pet peeve is the fistful of customer cards needed to get juice from Germany’s disjointed infrastructure. ‘It should be just as easy as paying for your fuel at a gas station’

Underpinning it all is a charging network that’s growing quickly to become five times more dense than what’s offered on American roadways. The number of outlets soared by a third last year to 8,515, according to Statista. While that may not sound like many, on average, that’s one every for every 41km², in a nation that’s larger than New Mexico but not quite the size of Montana.

"Charging on highways in Germany is very easy," says Munich resident Julia Peglow, who’s taken her BMW i3 city car on a number of vacations. "It’s trickier in the countryside, which needs some research in advance."

A particular pet peeve for her is the fistful of customer cards needed to get juice from Germany’s disjointed infrastructure. "It should be just as easy as paying for your fuel at a gas station."

Even car makers — who, for years, argued they built cars, not infrastructure — are chipping in as part of their €40bn ($50bn) splurge on electric technology budgeted for the next few years. Longtime rivals VW, BMW, Ford Motor and Mercedes parent Daimler have come together and started construction of a fast-charging network along Europe’s highways. The unprecedented alliance plans 100 stations by the end of this year before quadrupling the total by the end of the decade.

The government has stepped up measures, too, after disappointing sales forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to backtrack from an earlier target of putting 1-million electric vehicles (EV) on German roads by 2020. Since 2016, buyers of electric cars get a €4,000 rebate, while owners of plug-in hybrids get a €3,000 subsidy. There’s also a €300m budget to boost the build-out of charging infrastructure. Merkel, zeroing in on forming a government after last year’s election, is planning even more measures, including tax incentives.

So the market is responding. Sales of plug-in hybrid and electric cars are set to jump 64% this year to 82,000 vehicles, BNEF forecasts, making Germany the fastest-growing region among the top five markets. BNEF says that forecast may be conservative, and deliveries could easily double again this year.

Tesla is growing even more quickly in Germany than electric-cars sales generally. Registrations were up 75% last year to 3,332 vehicles; that’s approaching the 3,900 sales of the Porsche Panamera four-door, a close competitor to Tesla’s Model S.

Even after big gains, battery-powered vehicles remain a tiny fraction of last year’s German sales of more than 3.4-million new cars. But new models rapidly rolling out across showrooms nationwide could end EVs’ bit-player status soon. EVs hitting showrooms this year include Jaguar’s I-Pace crossover SUV, as well as Audi’s Q6 e-tron SUV. BMW is unveiling a battery-powered Mini next year, alongside Mercedes-Benz’s SUV as part of its EQ brand.

Diesel-stained VW will launch the fully-electric ID Crozz compact crossover and the ID Neo hatchback in 2020.

For now, plenty of — sometimes petty — struggles remain. Parking offenders, safe in the knowledge of lax enforcement, block inner-city charging spots, Hoeffner says. And Germany has work to do, too, to improve patchy coverage. Saxony-Anhalt, one of the states of former East Germany, counts just 55 stations, compared to some 870 in Bavaria, according to the country’s Federal Network Agency.

For the foreseeable future, perhaps the biggest drag on EV sales is, actually, drag. Because the driving range plunges as speed increases, EVs will struggle to keep the pace for long with a 911 on the famed autobahn, where some-two thirds of the roads have no speed limits.

Says BNEF analyst James Frith: "It’s well known that at higher discharging rates, the performance of the battery decreases."


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