In Depth: Berlin car-sharing paves way to an electric futureThe pilot project seeks to integrate electric vehicles into the daily lives of BerlinersPhotograph: Hartmut Reiche/Innoz

In Depth: Berlin car-sharing paves way to an electric future

There would be something poetic about Germany, the birthplace of the modern automobile, also pioneering the manufacture of mass-demand electric vehicles (EVs).

“ The point here is to go further — to completely rethink the way people move themselves around urban spaces”Florian Lennert

Yet while Germany is known for its green-leaning tendencies and its propensity for making beautiful and highly engineered cars, its contribution to the burgeoning EV industry has been negligible compared with manufacturers in Asia, the US and even other European countries.

The German government has set a target of having one million EVs on the road by 2020, but experts believe it will probably miss that target widely.

But if Germany has fallen behind on the supply of EVs, it is looking to pull ahead on their integration into its broader energy system.

This is not only critical for meeting its long-term climate targets; but more immediately, an expanding fleet of interconnected EVs can help soak up the excess electricity produced by the country’s constellation of wind and solar installations, making the national energy transition far more economical.

At the centre of these efforts is a clutch of once-derelict buildings under the shadow of a towering gasometer in southern Berlin.

Over the next few years, the small campus will become a focal point for Germany’s renewables, smart-grid and EV communities. The influential Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research is set to open a bureau, and future tenants such as Schneider Electric are building aggressively modern headquarters on the premises.

For now, however, the Innovation Center for Mobility and Societal Change, Innoz, pretty much has the run of the place.

On paper, Innoz — whose industry shareholders include Deutsche Bahn and T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom — appears similar to the Masdar City initiative in the United Arab Emirates, with the aim of bringing together industry, government and academia to begin untangling issues that markets alone may take decades to digest.

But whereas many of the breakthroughs at Masdar City will be limited in their relevance to greenfield developments, Innoz has the “living laboratory” of Berlin to use as its guinea pig.

One of the principal missions at Innoz is finding new but commercially viable ways to integrate more EVs into urban transport networks — no easy task in car-crazy Germany.

“Rather than simply looking at a model where everything stays the same but we swap traditional car engines with something electric, the point here is to go further — to completely rethink the way people move themselves around urban spaces,” explains Florian Lennert, a director at Innoz.

He notes that 90% of cars in Germany are parked 90% of the time — and most of them travel only about 20km per day.

“There’s a huge underutilisation of the capital and materials tied up in those cars, not to mention that they just take up a lot of space in crowded cities,” he tells Recharge.

Innoz’s pilot project is an “intermodal” transportation network — linking up an EV car-share scheme, Berlin’s broader public transport network and the city’s decade-old bike-share scheme, which is run by Deutsche Bahn.

By calling up an app on their smart phones, registered users are able to find “the nearest available car, which might lead to a train station, and then maybe to a bike for the last bit”.

The cars can be unlocked with smart phones, and joining the programme costs no more than buying an all-inclusive public transport pass, at least initially.

Lennert is convinced that as more EV stations are installed, and people grow accustomed to the idea, that it will be a cheaper, healthier and more convenient option for many in Berlin. There are currently about 20 stations and 100 cars.

Such share schemes also chime with demographic trends that see vastly more European households — particularly those headed by younger people — forgoing car ownership altogether.

However, the challenges facing the EV roll-out across Germany are great.

One of the biggest headaches is simply getting enough charging stations in place, a problem that is particularly acute in big cities. Several years ago, major power utilities seemed likely to spearhead such a push, given the opportunity for them to steal market share from petrol retailers.

But as it takes only 1-2kWh of electricity — worth maybe €2 ($2.52) — to charge a car, the utilities quickly soured on the idea. And then there is the centrality of the traditional automobile industry to Germany’s GDP, meaning that nearly everyone — government included — remains cautious about upsetting the apple cart.

“In a sense, German car companies are quite right to say, ‘Nobody’s going to make much money selling EVs for the next ten or 15 years, and in the meantime we’re making a lot of money selling [Mercedes-Benz] S-classes to China’,” Lennert says.

But rapidly evolving technology and consumer mindsets are already altering the commercial and political landscape. Thanks in part to some gentle arm-twisting from the government, German car makers are on track to launch a dozen or so EV models by 2014.

Lennert says share schemes like the one Innoz is pioneering will be even more relevant in emerging economies. “If you think about Mumbai or Jakarta or Bangkok, and imagine replicating the level of motorisation we have in the West, it’s just not feasible,” he says. “Quite aside from the environmental cost, there’s simply not enough space.”

That presents huge opportunities for German industry.

“How the world manages its transport fleets in the mega-cities of tomorrow, how it connects all these various parts of the energy system, is also very interesting for the Siemenses and Bosches of this world,” says Lennert.

Karl-Erik Stromsta, Berlin

Published: Monday, July 16 2012