Interview with Professor Henning Kagermann, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech)
Electric cars are becoming ever more popular – not least of all due to Volkswagen AG’s electrification campaign. But a good charging infrastructure is also part of it. Professor Henning Kagermann, chairman of the National Platform Future of Mobility (NPM), explains in this interview how that works and why electric mobility is so important.
How important is further expansion of the charging infrastructure for the success of electric cars?
Very important. Also as a way of addressing the “charging anxiety” here in Germany. Actually it shouldn’t play a big role for most people in everyday life because a single charge is enough for most commutes and routine errands. But as we know, cars have an emotional component. And because big car makers like Volkswagen are really getting into the e-car market now, the charging infrastructure question is becoming more pressing. E-mobility is really accelerating on account of this campaign by the big manufacturers.
What is the current status of Germany’s charging infrastructure?
The situation in Germany is not as bad as many people think. But we have to pick up the pace. According to a recent survey, one in four Germans would buy an electric car – which is a lot when you consider that nearly four million car purchase decisions are made every year. Right now we have around 18,000 public charging points in the country. That’s enough at the moment when combined with the wallboxes for charging e-cars at home. But when this development speeds up – which I would very much welcome – then we’ll need more. As a general rule, we need to meet demand. If we assume there will be around seven to ten million electric cars in the country by 2030, then we have to get moving on expanding the charging infrastructure.
What has to happen for Germany to transition to electric mobility?
Three main players need to do their part: the car makers, the public, and the government. With the Volkswagen Group we have a car maker that is covering the volume sector with models like the ID.3, which is an essential condition for electric mobility to achieve a breakthrough. With brands like Porsche and Audi it’s also addressing the emotionality side. The public is approaching the matter cautiously, as is the government, because so many other things are involved, including the energy transition in general and digitalization.
Which countries are ahead of us and why?
There are two examples that get a lot of attention, namely Norway and China. In China they’re working with incentives that we’re not able to offer – let alone want to – such as the ability to refuse registration to new cars that aren’t electric. And in Norway cars with combustion engines are subject to very high taxes, so e-cars without these taxes enjoy a big financial advantage. We don’t have those kinds of options right now, nor do we need them.
Why is it often said that Germany has been sleeping on the job?
That’s not really true. Germany is somewhat more cautious, that’s right, but it’s in an excellent position overall. In part thanks to our strong automotive industry. I might have wished for the big corporations to start tackling this topic somewhat earlier, for example in areas such as battery-cell research and production. But decisions like that always depend on a number of different factors, and the German car makers seem to know what they’re doing. Moreover, one shouldn’t scare off customers and ruin the market with half-baked models. It’s always a question of how far along certain technologies are. They keep advancing and can suddenly make a real leap forward, as we’ve seen for example with smartphones. In geopolitical terms it’s surely not a bad idea either for Germany and Europe to assume a strong position technologically. That’s clear from global developments over the past four years.
Why should the state help to expand the charging infrastructure, and how can it do so in targeted ways?
Why? Well, many more electric cars will be coming onto the market in the foreseeable future and will need to be charged. And how? Basically a lot of things are already being done. There’s sufficient funding for it in my opinion, although the funds are not being distributed smoothly or quickly enough. Things are moving too slowly. Some of the bureaucracy in this area needs to be eliminated in order to move faster. And of course we need new regulations that make it easier for people to install wallboxes in their apartments, whether as tenants or owners, because that’s still too complicated. In the case of condominiums, for example, you still need the consent of the entire homeowners’ association, which is just not a sustainable solution. Another question of course would be how the grids should be expanded and what kind of intelligent charging methods we need in order to make sure all the e-cars in the future can be charged – and what type of energy we want to “fill up on”. Ideally not on fossil-based power, so we can meet our climate goals.
What’s your opinion of the Volkswagen Group’s electrification campaign?
It’s exactly right. As a volume-oriented manufacturer, Volkswagen can achieve a fair amount here. An e-car for everyone, along the lines of the Golf, with an affordable price tag is precisely what we need.
How do you respond to people who say e-cars are hardly climate-neutral given our current energy mix?
People often object that e-cars aren’t good for the climate because of the current energy mix, or only after they rack up a lot of mileage. Depending on the car model, however, the emissions can be considerably lower even with today’s energy mix. As the energy transition proceeds, it will of course also make e-mobility more favorable for the climate. And it’s a good idea to be expanding the charging infrastructure and presenting new car models now. We can’t expect everyone to wait until the energy transition moves forward and then not have the infrastructure ready until maybe around 2040. Electric mobility and the energy transition have to go hand in hand. But I’m very optimistic that everything will go well.
What will electric mobility look like in Germany in 2025?
By 2025 there could well be two or three million electric cars on the roads in Germany. Over the long term, digitalization will lead to major changes in business models. Greater connectivity, intelligent traffic control systems and highly automated vehicles will help us transition to mobility services that are need-based, integrated and intermodal, including individualized public transport, outstanding safety and attractive user experiences – not to mention the local advantages of e-mobility like zero emissions, climate friendliness and resource efficiency.
Resource efficiency in what sense?
Electric motors have a higher overall degree of efficiency than combustion engines, around 70 percent as opposed to 30 or 40 percent. Electric cars save space, because they can have interiors of the same size with a circumference that’s 10 percent smaller. That’s an enormous amount, when you think about it – ten percent more space on the roads! Moreover, electric cars need less maintenance because they have fewer individual components that can break down.
What do you think is the most important thing from the customer’s perspective?
An electric car that’s not too expensive, has a good range – and can be charged quickly and conveniently. That requires a need-based charging infrastructure in cities and on freeways, including wallboxes at home and at work. Experience suggests that the ratio should be 15 percent charging columns to 85 percent wallboxes. Most people simply charge their electric cars at home overnight.