Anyone who regularly drives long distances in a car will be familiar with the situation: shortly before you reach your destination, with the needle on the fuel gage hovering on reserve, you suddenly run into a completely unexpected traffic jam. If you're in an electric car, should you then switch off the heating and music in order to save energy? Charging specialists Markus Bauknecht and Shahram Hami Nobari can tell us the answer. A conversation about the everyday viability of the latest generation of electric vehicles.
It's quite cold today. Not exactly the best weather for an electric car, is it?
Shahram Hami Nobari: It's true that there is a physical correlation between the outside temperature, the electric range and the charging process. Currently, about 80 percent of electric vehicle charging, for example, takes place overnight in the garage at home or during the day at work. It's only over long distances in cold weather that you may need to schedule an extra stop. We take these factors into consideration in our digital charging service Mercedes me Charge, in conjunction with the intelligent EQ Navigation system, to ensure that we actively plan charging breaks along the route.
Markus Bauknecht: Norway, where low temperatures are usual, has the highest level of sales of electric vehicles. Unquestionably, this is linked to government incentives. But nobody would drive a vehicle like this if it wasn't viable for everyday use.
How viable, then, is the range of the current generation of vehicles in everyday life?
Markus Bauknecht: Anxiety about insufficient range is common among drivers who don't have much experience with electric vehicles. While this is rationally not explainable, emotionally it certainly is: driving an automobile is only superficially about getting from A to B. In reality, a car promises freedom. Car owners can decide for themselves at any time where they want to go, when, and at what speed. To begin with, an electric vehicle with a range of 400 to 500 kilometers casts doubt on this assumption. Interestingly, though, such doubts on the part of drivers of electric vehicles disappear after just a few weeks, because they realize that they only rarely drive that far and that the vehicle thinks for them on long journeys and schedules charging stops.
How does the charging process work, in detail?
Markus Bauknecht: Anyone who charges at home using our Wallbox needs about five seconds. You just plug the connector into the vehicle in the evening and remove it again in the morning before you drive away. Suddenly the car is always fully charged and the user has no need to drive to the gas station. Much the same applies in the case of electric drivers who have a means of charging at their company's premises. Charging is more practical than conventional refueling. The exception remains the long distance¹, where I do have to plan a couple of recharging stops. This might seem inconvenient at first, but actually, that doesn't happen often and is really the exception on a day-to-day basis.
Shahram Hami Nobari: An exception for which we have developed a very convenient solution, in the form of Mercedes me Charge. The driver of an EQC has no need to play an active part in locating the nearest charging station and wondering whether he or she is able to access it. The vehicle handles all this, via Mercedes me Charge. The EQ-optimized navigation system plans the route and suggests suitable intermediate stops. As you drive, the latest information about the traffic situation, the weather and the availability of charging stations flows into the car, allowing route guidance to be automatically adjusted in accordance with these factors.
Markus Bauknecht: I'm out and about a lot with our electric vehicles. The pre-calculation undertaken via our algorithms is very precise, with divergence from the forecast range normally amounting to just a few kilometers. Incidentally, from the point of view of energy consumption, it is also cheaper to stand in a traffic jam with an electric vehicle than with a combustion-engine vehicle. It takes a long time to drain the battery completely, because the car uses comparatively little energy while stationary. By comparison, it is fairly inefficient to heat the interior of the vehicle with the residual heat from a running engine, without the vehicle moving at all.
Back to charging. How comprehensive is the coverage provided by the charging network at present?
Markus Bauknecht: Of around 18,000 charging stations in Germany, about 96 percent are registered by Mercedes me Charge. We're working on capturing 100 percent. For traveling within Europe, IONITY is putting about 400 charging stations in place. This means that there will be an opportunity for rapid charging approximately every 150 kilometers.
Shahram Hami Nobari: Globally, our target is to incorporate at least 80 percent of charging stations and to make them available to our customers via an integrated solution. This plan encompasses more than 300,000 charging points worldwide that are already logged in the system, facilitated by the integration of more than 200 charging station operators, currently, into the Mercedes me Charge service. With Mercedes me Charge via MBUX and the Mercedes me App with additional RFID card, our customers thus have straightforward access to a steadily growing, transnational infrastructure. They have no need to worry about which charging station operators they have a contract with, where to find charging points and how they are going to pay when they get there.
Does recharging cost the same at every charging station?
Markus Bauknecht: No, the same principle applies as at the gas station, every charging station operator can fix their own price for electricity. Our app shows the price for each charging station and calculates the expected charging costs. The driver can therefore choose to drive to a cheaper charging point. Payment is made via RFID card at the charging point, via the head unit in the vehicle or via the app on a mobile phone. The user then receives an invoice once a month that covers all charging processes.
How long does full recharging take?
Markus Bauknecht: That depends on the capacity the vehicle can call upon at the charging points. Ionity, our joint venture with BMW, Ford and the VW Group, has specialized in the provision of rapid charging stations (read more). At these charging points, electric vehicles can theoretically be charged in under 15 minutes at a capacity of 350 kW. I can charge the EQC there from 10 to 80 percent in around 40 minutes. The charging duration will continue to reduce for future generations of electric vehicles.
If we assume that electric mobility really takes off, would we have enough electricity?
Markus Bauknecht: In case that, overnight, all 47.7 million vehicles in Germany were replaced by electric vehicles, we would need about 25 percent more electricity in Germany. That doesn't sound all that much. The more relevant question is the distribution, since the energy must somehow find its way to the charging points. From our conversations with energy suppliers we know that the network infrastructure will have to start to grow in tandem, once a market share of around 20 percent has been reached. The suppliers are already very aware of this. And, in reality, the switch will not take place overnight.
But you're also not going to build a power station like that overnight.
Markus Bauknecht: That's true. On the other hand, energy suppliers do, of course, have an interest in selling more electricity and therefore in investing in the infrastructure. A food retailer doesn't complain either if he has to open a new store because his products are selling so well.
Is there some way of designing the energy usage itself in an even smarter way?
Shahram Hami Nobari: Yes, there are already some initial ideas about controlling charging intelligently. Vehicles would then no longer charge at times when everyone is just getting home from work and the demand on electricity is already high but, for example, automatically staggered overnight. Optimized charging management would reduce the costs for expanding the network and power station production considerably. As far as we're concerned, it is also conceivable that the electricity for charging could be provided free. But there's still a long way to go before we reach that point.
The environmental benefits of electric cars become particularly apparent in conjunction with "green" electricity. How sustainable is the charging process currently?
Markus Bauknecht: Our goal is that electric vehicles in the future will be recharged using eco-power only. We have already made good progress towards achieving this vision. As a shareholder of IONITY, we are able to offer "green" electricity at rapid charging points right across Europe. It is also important that electric car drivers influence the reduction of CO2 in traffic directly via their own private electricity contract. We provide advice to our customers to this effect. We also already offer "green" electricity at the charging points across our own Daimler plants in Germany.
Are any other public charging points similarly operated using "green" electricity?
Shahram Hami Nobari: Our colleagues are currently working on finding this out, so that we can also make this information available via Mercedes me Charge. There are currently more than 200 operators of charging stations worldwide.
Charging facilities in public areas are still the exception rather than the rule. Will that continue to be the case in the future?
Markus Bauknecht: Using a Wallbox is currently the most convenient way. Most people who buy an electric car therefore have the opportunity to charge it at home or while they're at work. This will change as market penetration increases, at that point we will find more and more customers without a parking space of their own. In five years' time we will definitely need more charging solutions in public areas than we have today.
Is that a challenge preoccupying you in your day-to-day development work?
Shahram Hami Nobari: A suitable charging infrastructure is of course key to electric mobility. For us as an automotive manufacturer, however, the main thing is that our vehicles should be able to make intelligent use of the existing charging solutions. In future, when we drive to a restaurant, the vehicle might draw our attention to a nearby charging point, in order to ensure that we have the optimum range for the next journey. That's the sort of solution we're working on.
Any other ideas you can share with us?
Shahram Hami Nobari: We are already working on integrating charging points other than public ones into Mercedes me Charge, such as the Wallbox at home or the charging stations at our work place. This will allow us to create a small charging ecosystem. To some extent we are walking a tightrope here, since the more information we add, the more complex the system becomes and the more limited its user-friendliness becomes. At the end of the day, our aim is that the customer should not even have to think about the charging.
A bit like charging your mobile phone?
Shahram Hami Nobari: Exactly. I don't have to think about it and the process is just so simple.
Markus Bauknecht: Planning contradicts the idea of freedom. Which is why we also want to further minimize this aspect. I then no longer need to look at the app the evening before I set off to see how much time I need to allow for charging stops on my journey to Berlin. The vehicle will remind me instead to set off in good time. And that I need to charge the vehicle fully that evening. That's how intelligent the car of the future needs to be.
How distant is this future?
We are optimistic that the next generation of electric vehicles will already be capable of all this. In five years' time, no one should have to plan their charging.
¹ Simple distance greater than the range of the vehicle