Electric vehicles divide opinion as car-loving Germany goes to polls

Source: By Philip Oltermann, The Guardian • Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Election has framed future of automobility as showdown between petrolheads and green zealots

The second Steve Dumke spots a gap in the traffic on the road from Eggersdorf to Strausberg, his white Hyundai Ioniq lurches forward and nestles between two fast-moving Volkswagens in the right-hand lane. “A tap on the accelerator and the gap is mine,” he howls with glee.

Dumke, a 37-year-old former chef, is less a speed freak than, in his own words, “a vehicle eroticist”. “I love cars with curves and the growl of an eight-cylinder piston engine,” he says. But for the last four years the vehicular object of his desires has run on megawatts rather than litres.

After swapping an old petrol-chugging Opel Signum for his first electric vehicle in 2017, he found himself having to defend his purchase to sceptical friends and family members, who joked that he would spend more time at charging ports than ferrying around his young family.

To prove them wrong, Dumke recorded his daily commute and uploaded it to a YouTube channel that grew into a full-time occupation when restaurants closed during the pandemic. This February he co-founded Berlin-Brandenburg Electric, an association for EV enthusiasts that organises car shows, rallies and culinary Saus und Schmaus (“drive and dine”) trips out of the German capital.

“The electric car won’t save the world, but it can offset one of the negative aspects of driving and allow us to have plenty of fun along the way,” he says.

Enthusiastic early adopters such as Dumke are key to the economic future of Europe’s leading car-producing nation. But in a German election campaign that has framed the future of automobility as a showdown between speed-loving petrolheads and green zealots on cargo bikes, their voices are rarely heard.

As the country heads to the polls on 26 September, all main parties on the ballot apart from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) say they are committed to Germany reaching net zero within the next 14 to 29 years, and to curbing combustion engine emissions accordingly.

Steve Dumke
Steve Dumke: ‘The electric car won’t save the world, but it can offset one of the negative aspects of driving.’ Photograph: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

The promise – and some say fiction – that these parties offer to voters is that such a historic change can be achieved without risking the world-leading status of Germany’s automobile industry. “Our great challenge is that we remain a car nation that is successful at making electric vehicles instead,” Olaf Scholz, the frontrunner in the race, said in a recent interview.

The outgoing government claims existing subsidy schemes will suffice for Germany to meet its green targets, forecasting 14m electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to populate its roads by the year 2030. The Greens and the Social Democratic party (SPD) are even more ambitious, by another 1m vehicles.

But the question is whether the enthusiasm required for a pivot to electric vehicles can be mustered in a country as romantically attached to a car culture of old as Germany.

“Whether it is Italy, Britain or Germany, many European nations think they have a unique love affair with car culture,” said Giulio Mattioli, a transport researcher at the Dortmund’s Technical University. “But I don’t know another country where so much national pride is invested in the combustion engine.”

An opinion piece in the mass-market tabloid Bild this month mourned the days when politicians used to “lovingly stroke carriage parts” for photo ops, complaining that “this year we are seeing an electoral campaign against the car and people who rely on four wheels”.

The Free Democratic party (FDP), a likely kingmaker in Germany’s next coalition government, has accused climate activists of waging an ideologically motivated “culture war against the car”, while the AfD has attested its political rivals have a “hatred” for Germany’s automobile industry, claiming that “Your car would vote for the AfD”.

Such debates have come to be reflected in consumer behaviour. A February 2021 survey in 22 countries found that scepticism about the viability of electric driving was highest in Germany, where 58% of respondents said their next vehicle would “probably not” be electric. In terms of take-up, Germany trails behind Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, said Gracia Brückmann, a transport researcher at ETH Zurich. “Germany is mid-table, at best.” Only 1.5% of the current fleet on its roads is fully or partly electric.

Economic concerns were always likely to cause hesitancy in a country whose collective memory still links the “economic miracle” of the 1950s to the prowess of carmakers such as Volkswagen and BMW.

Roughly every 50th worker in Germany is directly employed in the automobile industry. Some economic forecasters fear the switch to electric will not only spell redundancy for traditional car mechanics but also hit medium-sized suppliers.

When Steve Dumke joined fellow Berlin-Brandenburg Electric members at a lakeside hotel in Strausberg, it was a Tesla Model Y and an electric Ford Mustang that had EV enthusiasts begging for a ride. Out of 15 vehicles lining up on the car park, only two were German marques.

Enthusiasts check out an electric car
Enthusiasts check out an electric car. Photograph: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

Yet even in Germany the situation is changing rapidly. Purchasing incentives linked to last year’s pandemic stimulus package led to registrations of pure electric cars increasing by more than 300% year on year, and in July electric cars on German roads crossed the 1m threshold, missing a 12-year-old target by only a few months.

“Germany’s chances of becoming a champion of electric mobility are not perfect, but they are still pretty good,” said Patrick Plötz, a transport economist at the Fraunhofer Institute in Karlsruhe. “The big manufacturers have finally clocked to what’s at stake.”

Yet to win over the country’s car lovers completely, politicians and business leaders may have to listen more carefully to early adopters like Steve Dumke.

Other than high retail prices, the main big obstacle that prevented ordinary drivers from switching to electric was a fear of getting stranded between A and B, said the chef turned YouTuber.

“When someone like Olaf Scholz says we need to have a fast charging point at every petrol station, you can tell he how rarely he uses the electric car he’s supposed to have in his garage,” says Dumke, who lives in a rented fourth-floor flat and cannot charge his car at home.

“What we need are lots more normal, slow but cheap charging points in areas where people actually live. Steht er, dann lädt er, that has to be the motto: when you’re parking, you’re charging.”

On the weekend Germany goes to the polls, his club is fielding a team in the E-Cannonball, a 70-car rally from Berlin to Munich organised by Ove Kröger, a former drag racer. Those who cross the finishing line first won’t be automatic winners, he explains, a surprise perhaps in the only country in the western world not to have a maximum motorway speed limit.

Instead, the trophy will be awarded to those who complete the journey with the fewest amount of charging stops. All type of EVs are permitted: to level the playing field, cars with more powerful batteries must have 50% of power at the start and finish lines.

“Use your head, not your lead foot, that’s the message,” Kröger says.

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