Sales of electric cars stuck in the slow lane
In spite of a steep increase last year, overall numbers remain low
Posted: February 27, 2013
The Škoda Octavia Green E Line, an all-electric car by the Czech automaker, was unveiled a year ago but has not yet gone on sale. The company's electric Citigo model is scheduled to be launched next year.
By Lubomír Sedlák
For the Post
With more than 10 times as many battery-powered vehicles sold in the Czech Republic in 2012 compared with two years earlier, these ultra-quiet, eco-friendly forms of transport might seem to have finally achieved the type of popularity campaigners feel they deserve.
Yet even after the steep increases of the past two years, they are still languishing in the slow lane, with little more than one car out of every 2,000 sold last year in the Czech Republic being fully battery-powered.
Sales in 2012 were 89, compared with just six in 2010, but it still represents a tiny fraction of the 174,009 cars purchased in the country last year.
The lack of interest among drivers here mirrors the situation in much of Europe, where heavy investments by manufacturers and government subsidies have yet to be translated into large-scale popularity.
Three main factors are holding back electric vehicle sales: high cost, limited range and the still-low number of charging stations.
"The No. 1 problem, bigger than the range, at least in the cities, is their price," said Jan Linhart, a Prague-based automotive industry analyst with KPMG.
The cheapest battery-powered vehicles cost from around 480,000 Kč, while conventional vehicles start from as little as 200,000 Kč.
There is a vicious circle, according to Antonín Šípek, director of the Czech Automotive Industry Association: Electric vehicle manufacturers are waiting for more charging stations to appear, while the companies that install stations are reluctant to invest while the number of vehicles is so modest. The attitude of drivers is also an issue.
"Czechs are generally a highly hesitant nation, but the truth is [electric cars] have as yet not become incredibly popular in neighboring Germany either, especially compared with Austria and Switzerland, because these two states are more environmentally conscious," Šípek said.
There are around 200 charging stations in the Czech Republic, according to Martin Skořepa, managing director of EmotionCar, which has installed stations for the Czech utility ČEZ.
Only about 10 of these are equipped with a 50 kilowatt direct-current source that enables cars to be charged quickly, in about 20 minutes. Most other stations are much less powerful, and recharging takes between one and three hours.
"The low number means drivers must plan well ahead if they want to stop by," Skořepa said. "The main reason the number of charging stations is still low - worldwide, not just in the Czech Republic - is because most drivers undergo the process at home, overnight, in their garages. It is cheaper, and it is sufficient if you use the car merely in cities."
Whatever the inconvenience of using electric cars, environmentalists are keen to promote them, even though skeptics sometimes suggest they merely replace pollution produced by a vehicle with that generated by power stations.
Ondřej Liška, chairman of the Green Party in the Czech Republic, takes issue with this argument.
"A combustion engine doesn't work uninterruptedly and therefore pollutes the air much more than a turbine, not talking about the fact that its emissions are inhaled by the people around, while those from the power stations are, thanks to the chimneys, much better dispersed," he said.
In Europe as a whole, electric vehicle sales doubled from 11,563 in 2011 to 24,203 last year, but even this represented a market share of only 0.2 percent.
Many analysts do not expect battery-powered cars to significantly dent the sales of conventional vehicles in the short term.
For the next decade, they are likely to remain "relatively experimental," Patrick Oliva, a senior vice president with the France-based tire manufacturer Michelin said in a recent interview, with mass sales not expected before 2020.
Hybrid vehicles, which have both an internal combustion engine and a battery, have better immediate prospects than fully battery-powered cars, according to Šípek.
Indeed, hybrid sales in the Czech Republic heavily outnumber those of battery-only vehicles, with 362 registered last year. Many hybrids have the advantage that they do not require a charging station, as the batteries are charged while the vehicle is in motion, although manufacturers are now promoting plug-in hybrids that do require a station.
As electric vehicles struggle to take off in popularity, more manufacturers are launching them in the hope that sales will grow. This could provide a challenge in the Czech Republic to Peugeot, which accounted for 52 of the 89 electric vehicles sold in the country last year. Most electric Peugeots sold here in 2012 were bought by ČEZ.
A year ago, Mladá Boleslav-based Škoda unveiled its debut all-electric car, the Octavia Green E Line, with a range of 93 miles.
The car was simply a test-bed for technology, however, and did not go on sale, with only 10 being made, although next year an electric Škoda Citigo is set for launch.
Even if electric cars remain of fringe interest, some observers in the Czech Republic believe the environmental performance of cars will improve anyway.
"The dominant mode of propulsion [on the roads] will in the immediate future continue to be the combustion engine, although one that needs less fuel, does not pollute the air so much and is lighter because some of the metal parts are being replaced by plastics," Šípek said.
- Daniel Bardsley contributed to this report.
Lubomír Sedlák can be reached at email@example.com