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VW's 'dieselgate' puts spotlight on electric cars in Germany

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks.

[FRANKFURT] The pollution-cheating scandal that has engulfed auto giant Volkswagen is turning up the heat on the German government to make more determined headway in its self-declared "electromobility" goals, analysts say.

The "bitter irony" of the scam that has rocked the automobile sector around the world and plunged the once-respected carmaker into its deepest-ever crisis is that the billions of euros VW could potentially face in fines "could have been used to finance an entire electric car programme," complained environment minister Barbara Hendricks recently.

Over the past six years, Berlin has put up 1.5 billion euros (US$1.7 billion) for research into an electric car, the minister pointed out. And her ministry is looking into a series of measures to promote the electric car, such as tax incentives and purchase subsidies.

Her colleague at the Economy Ministry, Sigmar Gabriel, has said he was ready to support financial incentives, without specifying what form they should take.

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And he is in favour of introducing quotas for electric vehicles in the car fleets of public authorities, with the aim of boosting demand.

Such ideas are enthusiastically welcomed by VDIK, the association of international motor vehicle manufacturers, which is calling for a purchase discount of "at least 5,000 euros" per electric car during a still undefined "transition period." In 2009, the German government formulated a goal to have around one million electric cars on the road by 2020. And it restated that target earlier this year.

But the goal is looking increasingly ephemeral and at the half-way point, the concrete numbers are woefully short of target, with a meagre 19,000 vehicles on the roads in Germany in September 2015.

The government's goal "is quite simply not achievable," said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Research in Bergisch Gladbach.

There was "a lot of euphoria, but no vision for a feasible economic model" for the electric car in Germany, he complained.

The VW scandal may provide a chance to restart the electromobility debate in Germany.

"But for that, real concerted action is needed between automakers, suppliers and the authorities," Bratzel said.

Offering car buyers a purchase discount would likely prove only a flash in the pan with regard to kickstarting overall demand, the expert argued.

The main determining factors for the lasting success of electric vehicles would be considerations of "battery autonomy, infrastructure and price," Bratzel insisted.

Public subsidy of any electromobility initiative remains controversial.

The opposition environmentalist Green party is calling for a general overhaul of the system of taxes for vehicles, arguing that powerful, big-cylinder and pollutant engines should face the highest levies.

But that is a road the government appears reluctant to go down.

Instead, Berlin announced, just a week after the VW scandal broke, the construction of 400 battery-charging stations for electric cars at motorway service stations by 2017, as well as a number of "privileges" for electric vehicles on public roads.

They would, for example, be allowed to use bus lanes and benefit from free parking in towns and cities.

However, at the end of the day, it is the local and municipal authorities that have the final word on such initiatives and they "have no interest in jamming the bus lanes with private cars, even if they are electric cars," said Bratzel.

As time progresses and the dream of electromobility remains pie-in-the-sky, environmentalist groups are losing patience.

"Every year, Germany squanders seven billion euros on privileges for diesel, which is a pollutant technology," said Daniel Moser, who is responsible for transport issues at Greenpeace Germany.

The activists believe it will simply not be enough to transfer the privileges to electric vehicles.

What was needed was an entire ecological urban transport system, ranging from trams, to bicycles and electric buses, "not just more private electric cars clogging up towns," Greenpeace said.