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The one big problem with the electric-car movement​

FRANKFURT INTERNATIONAL MOTOR SHOW

The one big problem with the electric-car movement

The new Mercedes-Benz S560e plug-in hybrid car charges at the Frankfurt International Motor Show.

Auto makers are meeting government demands to develop more electric vehicles, but consumers don't want to buy them

Half of Canada may not care – yet – but this week's huge Frankfurt auto show is all about electrification. If it doesn't have an electrified engine, or at least the option for it, then it just doesn't matter.

The auto makers have little choice. Governments are insisting on it. Entire countries, such as the U.K., France, even China, are preparing to outlaw the internal combustion engine. In California and nine other states, and in Quebec, state and provincial laws are calling for huge penalties on auto makers that don't do their part to save the planet by selling electric cars.

A BMW i3 at the Frankfurt auto show.

At this week's show, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Jaguar Land Rover promised their fleets would offer electric options for every model, with a deadline of 2020 at the earliest and 2025 at the latest. BMW showed its all-electric Mini, which will be sold in 2019, and a sporty version of its i3; Mercedes showed its all-electric EQA and EQC concepts, and Audi showed its all-electric Elaine coupe concept.

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There's just one problem, and it's a biggie: while governments want us to drive electric cars, we don't want to buy them.

They're too expensive if there are no rebates to bring them in line with regular cars (as there are not in seven of Canada's 10 provinces), and their range and acceptance is only just getting there.

An Audi Aicon autonomous electric concept car.

"This is a timing issue, and I think that people underestimated how long it takes to get a new technology into the market," says Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of BMW's board of management. "Not only on the cost side, but also that for consumers starting to embrace electromobility, it's probably slower than some people expected when we started this journey.

"If everybody's convinced already, for example in California, why isn't everybody buying only electric cars? The prices there are very competitive, but it's still only a very small portion of consumers who are doing it. It takes a while for people to get used to it. Electromobility is a marathon, not a sprint, but it's still a small percentage, and very slow."

A BMW electric car engine. Without government rebates, electric vehicles are still unaffordable for many people. KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

European manufacturers are required to meet an average emissions goal of 95 grams of C02 a kilometre by 2021. Reuters reported that the car makers have offered a further 20-per-cent reduction by 2030 on the condition that more consumers accept electrified cars and rechargeable hybrids. "This conditionality principle links Europe's long-term climate objectives to the reality of the market," Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche said.

All the electrified cars introduced at the show have increased ranges and the new normal is around 200 kilometres for a charged battery. With Tesla and the Chevrolet Bolt now covering 400 kilometres between charges, the target is for a full battery to last at least as long as a tank of gas.

"After real estate, your investment in a car is probably the biggest investment a family will make, and you'll think twice before buying into a new technology. People are cautious, understandably," Schwarzenbauer says.

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"I think you'll see electromobility speeding up a lot in the next few years. You get more infrastructure, more people talking about it; you see neighbours and friends starting to buy them and then, all of a sudden, you'll be at the tipping point. And there's no going back."

That tipping point will arrive sooner for city drivers than rural drivers, maybe by a decade or more, but as electric cars begin to become mainstream and their price comes down, Schwarzenbauer warns that car owners will shy away from gas-powered vehicles. They'll be concerned they won't be able to sell them when the time comes.

A Honda Urban EV concept car in Frankfurt.

By 2025, he expects there will be cities that ban gas-powered cars from their downtown centres, at least.

But cities in North America?

Schwarzenbauer pauses a long time before answering: "Could be. There are some cities discussing it – thinking out loud. Los Angeles, San Francisco, considering having areas that are emission-free."

If that's the case, can Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver be far behind? We'll all find out soon enough.

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The writer was a guest of BMW. Content was not subject to approval.

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