How innovation is powering Germany’s electric vehicles

As recently as two years ago Germany’s supply-side infrastructure for charging electric vehicles was lacking, says Christian Hochfeld, Executive Director of the Agora Verkehrswende, Thinktank in Berlin. That has now been stood on its head thanks to Germany’s innovative start-up culture, supportive government programmes and regulatory buy-in.

Germany has the expertise to develop fully standardised electric car charging solutions to enable it to be the European leader in promoting electric car take-up.

The development of charging infrastructure for electric cars is more important in the long term than headline take-up rates. While Norway is currently the frontrunner in terms of electric vehicles, with a market share that already stands at 40 per cent, Germany has the expertise to develop fully standardised electric car charging solutions to enable it to be the European leader in promoting electric car take-up.

German potential in electric cars is underpinned by the historic role of automotive manufacturing as the backbone of the country’s economy. This combines with a modern and flexible regulatory framework. “Even as a very small company, you can talk to the German regulator,” says Ubitricity founder Knut Hechtfischer. “The young electric car industry is constantly pushing the regulator to anticipate future developments and get ahead of the curve.” His company, which hails from Berlin, derives its names from “ubiquitous” and “electricity”.

The prospect of cheaper electric cars will make the sector increasingly investable. The battery now accounts for about 45 per cent of the cost of an electric car, but this is likely to fall to 25 per cent to 30 per cent over the next five years. That means electric car prices will fall by between 20 per cent and 30 per cent by 2023, making them fully competitive. Hechtfischer and Ubitricity envisage a time when electric car mobility will also contribute to the transformation of the energy sector.

All this seemed no more than a distant possibility when Ubitricity started out in 2008, he recalls, and there were plenty who were not yet ready to listen. The antidote, Hechtfischer says, was the company’s naivety. The founders were non-experts who were “unafraid to look at things very differently, and to just ask basic questions again.” Even major European energy provider, Electricité de France, sensed the potential and shortly became shareholders in the start-up.

Hechtfischer compares the evolution of electric vehicles with emerging markets, where land-line telephones have been leapfrogged by mobile phones. To do that with electric vehicles, he says, you need Photovoltaic Capacity, when light is converted into electricity, in which Germany has long been a leader, plus storage. The idea behind Ubitricity was to use electric vehicles as mobile storage units. Just as consumers can choose their mobile provider for their smartphone, Ubitricity has empowered motorists to select their mobile electricity provider; the consumer can choose the greenest or the cheapest electricity.

If you can innovate in Germany, one of the world’s most complex markets, you have the potential to adapt and export solutions anywhere, says Hochfeld at Agora Verkehrswende. That potential is already becoming a reality. IONITY, a joint venture created by BMW, Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen has pledged to establish 400 fast-charging stations in an initial 24 European countries by 2020.

The new generation of electric vehicles in Germany means that the gap left by slow charging is a thing of the past. This new generation only needs 15 minutes for a charge that will last 300 kilometres – the time it takes to relax and have a cappuccino, says IONITY CEO Dr. Michael Hajesch.

An IONITY charging park usually has about six charging points, and, on average, there is no more than about 120 kilometres from one IONITY charging station to the next.

However, if you’re not on the motorway and the space available to recharge electric vehicles is very small, converted lamp posts are a way to integrate charging equipment into existing infrastructure in an unobtrusive way, says Ubitricity CEO Frank Pawlitschek. After experimenting successfully in Berlin, London is the next trial step for Ubitricity’s innovative technology.

Nineteenth-century lamp posts nestled under Westminster’s blue plaques for the great and the good are unlikely locations for the clean mobility of the future. Using these lamp posts to recharge electric vehicles is a fruit of Germany’s start-up culture. The care with which Ubitricity’s lamp post technology blends in with its context means that the ghost of the economist Walter Bagehot, who naturally has his own blue plaque in Westminster, will not be disturbed. Sir Richard Arkwright, the pioneering inventor of the spinning frame during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, might even give a nod of approval.