Interview with Prof. Johannes Schlaich
Johannes Schlaich is Professor of Mobility and Transport at the Beuth University of Applied Science in Berlin. In an interview, he talks about the practical suitability of electric cars and explains how digitalization can support the expansion of e-mobility.
During a holiday journey from Berlin to the north German island of Usedom, you tested how well e-mobility works over longer distances. What impressions did you take with you?
I liked Usedom. The drive with the e-Golf was fun. However, we also experienced some difficulties which disrupted our plans. We had to be more flexible than with a diesel or petrol engine. The reason was neither the e-Golf nor the e-mobility itself, but rather the state of the infrastructure around the e-car. Overall, I came home with a mixed picture.
Let’s start with the positives – what convinced you the most?
I like the driving feel. Electric cars are dynamic, you don’t have a transmission. At the same time, it is a pleasant, quiet driving experience. It’s fun, although I usually prefer to travel by train on longer journeys. The second plus point: an e-car takes away some of my guilty conscience. After all, there are always discussions about the eco-balance. But when I think about the goal of the so-called energy transition, to significantly increase the share of green electricity, then electric vehicles are clearly better for the climate than combustion engines. In addition, they drive without local pollutant emissions.
What are the disadvantages?
I had to plan the route more carefully, so that I could use intermediate stops to charge. On the way there, we got to know a nice little town that we would have passed otherwise. Also, the hotel search was restricted, as I had to pay attention to charging stations in the proximity. As a mobility researcher, I enjoy this kind of thing. But probably it is not everybody’s cup of tea. It becomes unpleasant when something unexpected happens.
The evening before the trip, the hotel had to cancel our booking. Of course, it was difficult to get a replacement at such short notice. In the end we stayed in a hotel that was four kilometers away from the next charging station. We had to walk this distance to our accommodation in the evening and back the next morning. We had good weather – it was a nice walk. But with small children or on a business trip you don’t need something like that to happen. We had a second problem during a break on the way back: When we came back from dinner, we noticed that the charging station had not been working.
“I had to plan the route more carefully, so that I could use intermediate stops to recharge.”
How did you get home?
We charged the necessary range at the neighboring charging station and then slowly drove along the country roads back to Berlin. I had never previously experienced that a charging station does not work. Maybe I also connected the charging cable incorrectly – but that’s not the point. Such experiences get around and influence the willingness to switch to an electric vehicle. When buying a new car, most people choose the safe solution when in doubt.
Where would you start to remove the obstacles?
It’s all about three things – price, range, charging possibilities. In terms of price, the increased purchase premium for e-cars is a reasonable incentive. The manufacturers are being asked to increase the ranges. And as far as the charging infrastructure is concerned, we need the right stations in the right places in sufficient quantities.
What does that mean exactly?
The best place to charge is at home – where the car is left unused for many hours anyway. This is the ideal solution for detached houses with their own charging facilities. In large cities, where many drivers park their cars on the street, we need public charging points within short distances. Useful additions are charging stations at the workplace and at supermarkets. Charging while shopping is ideal for everyday mobility, because the battery is half full within 30 minutes at a quick charging station and the charging station is immediately available after the shopping trip once again. For long-distance journeys we also need a rapid charging network on the main routes.
What are the difficulties?
Take charging at home: In co-ownership communities and apartment buildings, the purchase of a wallbox is often thwarted by co-owners or landlords who do not agree to the installation. It is therefore good that politicians want to lower the legal hurdles. Anyone who purchases an e-car must also be allowed to install a wallbox.
How can the public charging infrastructure move forward?
In cities, we need more courage when it comes to expanding the charging infrastructure. We need to get out of the chicken-and-egg problem – no one will buy an electric car if there are no charging facilities nearby. That’s why I advise not to spend too much time on cost-benefit calculations, but to get started instead. According to the principle: We create an offer and accept that it will only be fully used later. On highways, on the other hand, the federal government should ensure coordinated planning. On the one hand, sparsely populated areas must be supplied. On the other hand, it is inefficient if too many rapid-charging stations are built next to each other. Digital solutions can help to make better use of the existing infrastructure.
“Anyone who purchases an e-car must also be allowed to install a wallbox.”
How does that look?
The first, simple starting point is a complete overview of all charging options. Today there are several maps, but none is complete. Secondly, we need reliable live data on the availability of charging stations. Today I find out whether a plug has been plugged into a charging station – but I don’t know whether the parking space is actually free. Thirdly, I need to be able to ensure availability and book the charging point in advance. There are reservation functions for truck parking spaces – why not for e-cars? The last point: easy payment with a card at each charging point.
New vehicles such as the ID.3** have higher ranges. How important is this for the success of e-mobility?
With the increase in ranges, say from 200 to 400 kilometers, we are crossing an important boundary. 400 kilometers – that is more than half a tank for many cars with combustion engines. This takes away much of the fear that the battery could run empty in everyday situations. We also reach an important milestone on long-distance routes, because after three to four hours most people take a break anyway, which they can use for quick charging. So, we are reaching the range of mobility we are used to. That is important, because we should not rely on people adapting their behavior to e-mobility
What role will rail travel play in the future?
We need a strong infrastructure – if only to achieve the climate targets. Seen over its life cycle, rail has a much better CO₂ balance than any car. Rail also plays an important role in making our cities more livable. Around 10,000 passengers per hour travel in each direction on a heavily used suburban commuter railway line such as the S-Bahn network. This corresponds to around five lanes on a main road leading into the city. We will need cars for a long time to come – but they could not replace the railways.
To which vacation spot would you drive an e-car to next time?
I really enjoyed the Baltic Sea. I would like to repeat that. It would be nice if we had a little more range then. Then I would plan the stops along the Mecklenburg Lake District and charge the battery only at the destination.
Johannes Schlaich (41) is Professor of Mobility and Transport at the Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. His areas of work include integrated transport planning, transport modelling and digitalization in transport. At the end of May 2020, he set off on vacation to the island of Usedom, 233 kilometers away from Berlin, with a WeShare e-Golf. He reported about his trip on Twitter.
is a service of UMI Urban Mobility International GmbH, a company of Volkswagen AG. Since July 2019, WeShare has been offering completely electric car sharing in Berlin with 1,500 electric vehicles, all of which are powered by renewable electricity. The “Vehicle on Demand” service works according to the “free-floating” principle without fixed rental stations and functions digitally via app.
* e-Golf: power consumption, kWh/100 km: combined 14.1 - 13.2; CO₂ emission combined, g/km: 0; efficiency class: A+
** Applicable for all ID.3 models: CO2-emissions in g/km: 0; efficiency class: A+