Germany, famed for its performance-leading sports cars, the autobahn and overall mechanical know-how, has been leading Europe’s automotive industry since the very beginning. A land tailored to true ‘petrolheads’, the country is a juggernaut both on and off the race track, manufacturing some of the most iconic cars in the world, from the Porsche 911 and BMW M3 to the iconic Volkswagen Beetle and the market-dominating Golf. These are just a few marvelous examples of what the Western European country has to offer the automotive world - but it is so much more than that. What many outsiders may not realise is that Germany is a pioneer of future mobility, from electric vehicles and the infrastructure that surrounds them to autonomous cars and revolutionary technology in the field of transportation. To find out more, I travelled to several cities to meet the people behind this inspired push for future transportation. Travelling through Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin, I spoke to automakers, software specialists, authorities and startups who all shared with me their insights and outlooks for the the future of electric mobility in Germany and the rest of the continent.
My journey began in Stuttgart. The Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS), held in the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state, is an eye-opening event that marked its 30th exhibition this time around, indicating how much background focus there has been on electric mobility within the automotive industry. Personally, I believe that most people in the industry had a pretty good idea that the automotive world would eventually move over to electrification and other cleaner alternatives, however there was no indication of when it would happen. Now, you could argue that e-mobility is happening today, yet there is still a long way to go in order to reach the electric haven that is forecasted, as EVs still lack the range and supporting infrastructure. Nevertheless, we are on the cusp of success, with exhibitions like this around the world raising the profile of e-mobility and bringing automotive and transport leaders from around the world to discuss what needs to be done. Espen Hauge, from the Electric Vehicle Association, believes that things are starting to move with more people from around Europe getting involved in the area, all working towards the new emissions targets that have been set around the continent. “There will always be a reason to change,” he says. “People are starting to think that EVs are too good to be true, but with research and development of the technology, we are finally achieving this.” Like many, Hauge believes that if you sell an EV to a consumer, they will never return to conventional car ownership, with modern EVs providing greater efficiency and experience than petrol or diesel cars. Although this shift is on the horizon, the industry must continue to support the development of e-mobility through collaboration with a range of different players, including governments and authorities in order to create a standard. “The new era of mobility starts now, so we must create rules, allow competition and continue to develop,” affirms Hauge.
From a government perspective, Winfried Kretschmann, Minister President of the state of Baden-Württemberg, agrees that the industry needs to start now if Europe wants to reach the e-mobility goals it has set, working together to create a clearer picture of future mobility. “Other countries in Europe are taking different steps towards e-mobility but, ultimately, we are all going in the same direction,” he comments. “EV charging times are decreasing and automakers are changing the perception of these alternative vehicles; if we continue to pick up the pace with what we are doing, mobility will have a bright future.” Countries such as Germany, the UK and France have all issued separate emission reduction goals, ranging from 2020 to 2030 and, in some European countries, such as Norway, even sooner. Technology is progressing and creating what many in Germany call ‘transport 2.0’, thanks to a demand for innovation. In Germany alone, €32 billion has been invested into research and development, in order to replace conventional forms of transportation and combat negative mega trends such as the petrol and diesel SUV boom in Europe.
Europe has always been at the forefront of transport innovation, which depicts great success for e-mobility and the infrastructure that surrounds it, along with a strong backing from cities in regards to climate change and low/zero emissions. Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, in charge of the Energy Union, believes that European cities need to be mobilised through research and development, whilst convincing people that we need this change. “We must signal to automakers, governments and the public that it is important to set new CO2 standards, taking into account the Paris agreement.” By doing this, Europe can create a versatile ecosystem for e-mobility and, eventually, autonomous and connected transport. He agrees with Hauge that competitiveness is key to the success of electrification, as this will lead to more efficient and cost-competitive products, from complete EVs to battery packs and charging stations. “Competitive solutions are critical to EVs and we need to see next-generation batteries in our cars and homes,” says Šefčovič. “That means that we should work together to support battery research and development and create what I call the ‘Airbus’ of batteries.” Šefčovič predicts that battery demand will be shaped like an ice hockey stick, with incremental growth before a dramatic shift. “Once the market is ready, I want consumers around the world to rely on European manufacturers,” he continues. “There is a great level of complexity for a sustainable mobility systems, but I am convinced that Europe can provide safe, smart and sustainable services.”
Through the transition we are seeing in Europe today, it is only a matter of time before we see innovative products come to market that exceed the limitations of conventional transportation, but there needs to be a separate plan and organisational structure to tailor this conversion to allow organic growth. Dr. Georg Schütte, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is excited about this transition, but also believes that we need to focus on the transition phase of e-mobility as it is just as important as the final vision. “We are all excited about EVs, however conventional fuels such as diesel can still be used to drive the transition stage, as long as it is clean.” he advises. “Fuel-cell and synthetic fuels are also important to the transition and so we need to work together to drive further research. In addition, we need to sustain the infrastructure that will support the automotive industry in the future and think about this shift internationally.”
Ola Källenius, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler, Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, agrees with this transitional focus, believing that before we remake the car again, we must look at how the global automaker can remain in profit as it adapts to future mobility. “In 2025, up to 25% of worldwide sales should and could be electric,” he says. “For the other 75%, we need to make sure that the vehicles are as clean as possible.” This is the first stepping stone towards replacing the conventional car, which means that it is important for automakers to look towards plug-in and hybrid technology, which has been growing in demand. “There is a need for higher range of these vehicles if we want to increase adoption and new generation plug-in hybrids with 50 km+ range could be the answer,” adds Källenius. In addition to this, he believes that there is a great need for infrastructure, battery research and development and a synergy between companies involved in electrification. “We need the appropriate infrastructure for EV penetration as, right now, we are involved in a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. I think that battery technology will be a game changer for e-mobility and we expect that, by 2024, we will see lithium iron batteries improve efficiency,” he says. “But first, we need to make sure that energy density increases whilst costs decrease.”
It is evident that, to make sure customers are supported with their EVs, automakers and authorities need to invest in charging stations, building city-to-city charging, smart highways and organising consortiums to collaborate towards the growth of e-mobility. By working together, the automotive industry can demonstrate the performance of e-mobility and create synergies for electrification that will catapult these innovations into the limelight.
Before we even think about this kind of technology, it is important that we analyse and predict the future of automation, which will create an entirely new ecosystem that requires a brand new set of rules and regulations. Dr. Ing Michael Frey, Deputy Director, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, tells me that in order to achieve this, collaboration between manufacturers, software specialists and governments is vital. “In automated driving, everyone talks about the cars, but it's more than just the vehicle,” he says. “It is the technology within the vehicles and the infrastructure that surrounds them. This means that we have to share the information from the infrastructure to the vehicle and vice-versa, to make traffic flow more efficient and we also need to take care of the legal aspects.” Most of Europe has signed the Vienna Convention, which has created a valid regulatory all over Europe, making it possible for companies to operate and test autonomous cars. By legalising this kind of testing, Europe can recognise and speed up the development process of autonomous technology. “The goal is to create one set of rules for everyone around the continent, but nobody knows what will happen or how long this will take,” adds Frey.
At the end of the day, if society wants to have autonomous and electric cars in the market, somebody must earn money. To earn money, companies must sell or rent the mobility service to the consumer, who will only pay if the product saves them money or is more efficient. Thus, it is important to have the customers, suppliers and mobility business models working together, creating a modern ecosystem tailored to everyone’s needs. “We have to get citizens involved in mobility in the early stages,” says Frey. “For example, the Mayor of Karlsruhe informed everyone on the test field that had been created in the area of the impacts that it would have on road structure and the life of the citizens. We presented the legal, privacy and security aspects of autonomous cars and where they will be tested.” Through these discussions and the data collected, Frey explains that a summary of the concerns from the citizens in the area was formed, which helped them to understand the trends of future mobility. “It is important for us to learn what citizens think about mobility, as it will only work if it is accepted in the area. The response has been very positive; we thought that there would be a lot of concerns about security, but most of the questions were about when it will start, on what roads and when they can use the autonomous cars. They are all very interested in this technology - for example, older people are very interested in this as it allows them to travel freely and commuters can work as they travel.”
Only 300 years old, Karlsruhe is a very young city. Until the last century, Germany had a lot of small states and Karlsruhe never established itself in the manufacturing industry like many others did. However, this has played to its advantage, becoming Germany’s hub for software specialists. “We don't really have an industry for mechanical products, but we have a lot of IT technology, which is not the classical mechanical setup you would typically find in Germany,” Frey explains. A few years ago, more than 75% of internet pages were hosted in Karlsruhe, as most of the internet providers chose to locate their HQs there, showing its important status in the IT sector. Since the formation of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the city has become known as the internet capital of Germany. In addition to established companies, Karlsruhe has a growing startup community, responsible for over 22,000 jobs in the region. “We have a lot of 'hidden champions' in the Black Forest area, which are globally dominant in very tiny niches,” Frey adds. “These are normally quite small and family-owned companies, dominating the market without many people knowing their names.” This will continue to grow as e-mobility progresses, further expanding Germany’s capabilities in future transportation.
However, the problem for these companies is that they do not have enough money to build their own test fields like large companies are able to do. Frey tells me that it is important that they get a chance to test their products and applications, as they are an important gear to e-mobility. “Future mobility is intermodal, not only exclusive to the vehicle, with a mixture of transport that needs an appropriate system for the ecosystem,” he says. “We need the scientific support from the main research associations, small to medium enterprises and startups, as these people have a lot of ideas and are often programming many different applications that can be harnessed to connecting these different mobility services.” By doing this on a local level, Germany can then work towards developing an e-mobility ecosystem across Europe with neighbouring countries such as France and the UK. “We need regulations on at least a European level and there are ongoing conversations on this. Currently, everyone is doing their own thing and it isn't easy to get into the 'mobility boat', so we must fix this in the early stages.”
By creating a sustainable environment that allows development, as well as documenting progression and collaborating with different businesses and scientific partners, Germany can understand what the future will look like for e-mobility and autonomous vehicles in Europe. We may be in reach of a mobility-driven world, but the final step will be the hardest. So, more than ever before, Europe needs collaboration, connectivity and, most importantly, commitment to e-mobility.