German government wants one million electric cars by 2020

BERLIN — Germany launched a campaign Wednesday to put one million electric cars on the road by 2020, making battery research a priority as it tries to position the country as a market leader.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel poses for the media with a Mini electric automobile in Berlin

BERLIN — Germany launched a campaign Wednesday to put one million electric cars on the road by 2020, making battery research a priority as it tries to position the country as a market leader.

The program, which draws on 500 million euros, or US$705 million, set aside in an economic stimulus package earlier this year but leaves many financing details up to the next government, drew criticism for being too vague.

“It is our aim to make Germany into the market leader for electric mobility,” Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said after the German cabinet approved the plan.

He said the one million target by 2020 “is an ambitious aim, but one that we believe can be realized.” Germany had more than 41 million cars on the road at the beginning of this year — only 1,452 of them electric cars.

The government plans to spend 115 million euros, or $162 million, examining in eight test regions how the cars could best be introduced.

It also plans to put 170 million euros into research on the batteries that power electric cars, making domestic production a priority and ensuring that German experts are trained in the technology.

“It is important that we couple a hopefully decreasing dependency on oil imports with not suddenly becoming dependent on battery imports,” Guttenberg said.

The plan calls for electric cars to be put on the market starting in 2012, but does not specify what if any incentives might be offered to would-be buyers. Guttenberg said a market introduction plan would be examined, and financing would be a question for the next government.

Germany votes on Sept. 27 and the next government is sure to include at least one of the two partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “grand coalition” of the country’s biggest parties.

Opposition parties welcomed approval of the plan, but said it was far too short on both specifics and money.

The program is “significantly underfunded,” Green party lawmaker Baerbel Hoehn said, comparing the 500 million euros announced so far with the five billion euros the government is sinking this year into a bonus for Germans who scrap old cars and buy new ones.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama announced US$2.4 billion in federal grants to develop next-generation electric vehicles and batteries in the U.S.

Hoehn’s party advocates a 5,000 euro subsidy for people who buy electric cars, which she argued would speed up their adoption. “Without support for the market introduction, the development plan is missing a significant factor for success,” she said.

Germany’s car companies have scrambled to catch up to their competitors elsewhere, particularly in Asia, in electric technology.

Earlier this month, Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. unveiled the Leaf, an electric car that has a range of 160 kilometers on a single battery charge that is scheduled to go into mass production for a global market in 2012.

In June, Nissan’s smaller Japanese rival, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., launched its electric vehicle, the US$48,300 i-MiEV.

Elsewhere, others are planning their own electric cars, including Chinese automarker Dongfeng Motor Corp. which has teamed up with a Dutch company to develop and make them.

In the U.S., General Motors Co. is set to release next year its Chevrolet Volt, a rechargeable electric vehicle.

In Canada, Magna International Inc. (TSX:MG.A) chairman Frank Stronach says he wants to start mass-producing electric cars in the country within three years and is seeking government support for his new venture.

If successful, an electric car assembly operation in Canada would provide badly needed jobs and help the parts maker cash in on the growing demand for low-pollution vehicles in the marketplace over the next few years.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Volkswagen AG has said it hopes to introduce its first electric cars on the market in 2013, while Daimler AG is working together with California-based electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. on developing better battery and electric drive systems for vehicles destined for the consumer market.

Daimler and utility RWE AG plan to unveil a joint electric car and charging station test in Berlin by the end of this year.

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