//Electric Cars go Mainstream at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show

Electric Cars go Mainstream at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show

The theme of the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show which ran for most of last week can best be summed up in one word: “electric.” Nearly every manufacturer has unveiled a vehicle using the latest battery technology, whether hybrids or plug-ins, extended-range electric vehicles or pure battery cars.

Auto industry officials may be quick to talk up the newest in electric transportation, they’ll also admit it’s not going to be easy abandoning the time-tested internal combustion engine. And the cost is likely to be substantial to governments, the industry and consumers.

Audi has been one of Europe’s most strident champions of diesel technology and has repeatedly voiced its doubts on battery electric power and hydrogen fuel cell technology. But at the Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, it unveiled the e-tron, an electric-car concept.

The e-tron is among the sexiest cars taking a bow at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. With its aggressive, low-slung design, the 2-seater is a close cousin to the German maker’s R8 supercar, but uses a Lithium-Ion battery pack to power four individual motors, one for each wheel. Audi intends to put the e-tron — which can launch to 60 in just 4.8 seconds — into production in 2012.

At the other end of the vast Halle 5, Audi’s sibling division, Volkswagen, is targeting the other end of the automotive market. Its e-Up, which reaches showrooms in 2013, is based on VW’s new Up minicar, and is conceived as an urban commuter vehicle. It will be relatively low cost by battery car standards, but while VW isn’t giving out any hard numbers, industry observers expect it could cost twice as much as the gas or diesel-powered minicar.

The price of battery technology will come down with volume production, predicts Elon Musk, founder of California’s Tesla Motors, which is selling the $100,000 battery Roadster. The maker’s Model S will be a $57,000 family sedan with more room and more range.

But that’s still not cheap, and raises a basic question about which end of the market might be more open to battery technology. Audi CEO Rupert Stadler says his company is starting out with e-tron, because, “This is where the customer is most willing to pay a premium for this type of technology.”

Though initially slow to the segment, Mercedes-Benz is taking the same approach, in part because that may be the only way to keep its traditional product range alive. In major markets, such as the U.S. and Europe, they’re facing tough new restrictions on fuel consumption and the emissions of CO2, a gas strongly linked to global warming.

“Does sustainability mean we have to build small cars? Not necessarily,” insists Dr. Thomas Weber, the Daimler AG board member in charge of technology, pointing to the S500, a battery-based version of Mercedes’ big S-Class, which could get up to 70 mpg.

Renault has become one of the first global players to launch a range of purely electric cars at the Frankfurt Motor Show.  Designed to cater for everyone from a single traveller to local commercial transport, via 2.5 kids family cars, it’s significant in three ways:

  • the range is designed from scratch as a complete set of electric cars — not gas-fueled cars with an electric motor retro-fitted to give the manufacturer green kudos;
  • the cars will be priced without an “electric premium,” allowing them to compete alongside gas-based engines on a like-for-like basis for the first time ever;
  • most importantly, they’re real. Presented as concept cars, the Kangoo ZE is already in an advanced prototype stage.

But even if luxury customers accept the higher cost of battery technology, they face problems similar to those who’d buy the tiny e-Up. Range, for one thing. Even the latest LIon technology has trouble delivering much more than 150 miles per charge.

One possible way to get around this is with an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, like the Opel Ampera, which borrows its E-REV technology from the Chevrolet Volt. When the battery runs down, after about 40 miles, the car switches on its gasoline engine and keeps going.

Even then, Ampera needs to be plugged in overnight, just like e-Up and e-Tron. That might be easy for suburban commuters with a garage, but many potential customers live in urban centers, where gaining access for their car to a basic electric socket or a high-power, high-speed charger could prove difficult.

Working with the German government and an alliance of energy providers, a consortium of German automakers, including Mercedes and BMW, plan to invest at least $1.5 billion over the coming decade, eventually creating about 1,000 alternative power service stations across the country. Each will provide both chargers and access to hydrogen, the clean, lightweight fuel used by the BMW Hydrogen7 and Mercedes’ new F-Cell, the latter also debuting in Frankfurt.

“But where will that energy come from?” asked Johan de Nysschen, CEO of Audi of America. Like many battery skeptics, he warns that there could be a need for a lot more electric power plants, if EVs catch on, “but if we use dirty power, like coal, we’re just swapping emissions from the tailpipe for emissions from the smokestack.”

There may be a solution to that question in the theory put forward by Willett Kempton.

Kempton, 61, directs the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware. He is the originator of a concept that would make electric vehicles a boon to today’s electricity grid, and a potential solution for one of the biggest climate-related question marks hovering over the grid’s future: how to store renewable energy.

The idea is to allow electric vehicles not only to draw power from the grid, but to send electricity back into it, as well. It effectively would use the cars’ batteries as a big storage system to help buffer the constantly fluctuating balance of electricity in the system. These ups and downs that are expected to become steeper and more unpredictable as the share of renewable energy rises.

Even the biggest proponents of electrification, speaking in Frankfurt, acknowledged there are numerous challenges to the widespread adoption of the technology. Some manufacturers are looking at alternative business models, for example. Nissan may sell motorists the company’s new Leaf battery-electric vehicle, but lease the LIon battery pack at a rate close to what a typical driver would spend on fuel each month.

The wild card is consumer acceptance, of course, and no one is certain how widespread that will be. “The common thinking,” said Audi’s Schwarzenbauer, is that “It will take until 2030 to have half of the market go electric.”

One of the cars that might make that a reality is the electric Trabant. The 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show saw the launch of a concept and this year see’s a working prototype on display. And it should be on sale by 2012.

It’s being developed by an unlikely combination of specialist car manufacturer IndiKar, the former Volkswagen designer Nils Poschwatta and the leading miniatures manufacturer, Herpa.

The Trabant shares an innovative solar roof with the new Toyota Prius. Many electric cars carry an additional 12V battery in order to power SatNav, heating and other low-voltage “necessities.” These will all be powered by its solar roof and if there isn’t enough sun then your air-con won’t work. But seems like a practical solution to a problem that will mainly occur when it is sunny.
The most important thing to ensuring widespread acceptance from the mainstream market is that all this is delivered on the cheap. The new Trabant nT is not a rival to Mercedes or Rolls Royce. It doesn’t even try to compete with Ford.

It’s a simple, no-nonsense electric car which will go both forwards and backwards, and may power other electric appliances if the solar panel is getting enough sun. For an estimated $1.5/night to charge, you get a top speed of 80mph and a maximum range 100 miles. Pretty  you can get an average-performing car on the cheap, then why bother with a more expensive car with similar performance?

As the recession bites and rising oil prices squeeze financial belts tighter, this bottom of the range get-up-and-go vehicle may well be an instant hit. A true “car of the people,” keeping the population mobile for as little cost as possible.

Even that take is a matter of debate. But considering the pressure to find a clean alternative to the internal combustion engine, no one is willing to risk sitting on the sidelines, which is why some form of electric propulsion was such a key part of every major manufacturers offering at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Image of the Audi e-tron by MrPink© on flickr licensed under Creative Commons