Europe Heats Up: Smart Battery Cars and a Whole Lot of French Charging Stations

Daimler AG's Smart GmbH smart car along a curb in Germany. (Photo: Northfielder [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The big news this week is from Europe. Not only is Daimler putting a battery-powered version of the Smart car into production by 2012, but France is committing a huge amount of money to make sure that the Smart can plug in over there in the land of red wine and the baguette.

As a recent visitor to Europe, I can confirm that the Smart car is very popular there, with additional models available, including the larger forfour. The EV version, already undergoing tests in Great Britain, was always a no-brainer: Many people think the current car plugs in.

I would think that because Daimler already has the Smart lithium-ion battery car fairly well worked out, it could get it on the market before 2012. The company is starting with yet another test, of 1,000 cars, that this time also includes cars on the road in the U.S.

By the time mass production starts, the Smart EV will have considerable competition. Nissan’s Leaf battery car will be with us, as well as the Aptera, Ford’s Focus-based EV, Toyota’s city car, the Coda, and many more. Right now there’s a near-vacuum, with only the Tesla Roadster (700 sold) marketed in the U.S.

The Smart is actually built in Hambach, France, and a million have been built so far (I told you they were ubiquitous in Europe). Says Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche, “The Smart fortwo electric drive proves that emission-free driving in an urban environment is already feasible today.” OK, so if it’s feasible today, let’s get it on the road today!

Speaking of France, a Dow Jones report said last week that the French government would spend €1.5 billion (about $2.2 billion) on a charging network for EVs. The plan, to be launched in 2010, is partly financed through a €900 million state loan.

I like this part. The French will make installation of EV charging mandatory in office parking lots by 2015, and new apartment buildings will have to have them by 2012—just in time for the Smart EV. That’s the kind of step that would be very helpful, but also very difficult to do, in the U.S. Europeans accept state mandates much more readily than Americans do, and a similar approach could get embroiled in lawsuits and lobbying over here. But parking-lot charging may become a commercial advantage here, letting the free market take the lead.

The French are also buying EVs for government fleets—50,000 of them through 2015, says Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo. PSA Peugeot-Citroen will be making rebadged Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, and Renault is setting up a battery plant west of Paris with annual capacity of 100,000 packs, again with help from French state investment funds. This approach mirrors that taken by the Obama Administration, whose Department of Energy is making both loans and grants to support both EV carmakers and battery plants.

Also reflecting activity in the U.S., Peugeot-Citroen says it will have no less than four small EVs for sale by just next year (two of them versions of the i-MiEV). There will also be utility vehicles. Renault, partnered with Nissan Motor on EVs, said it will invest almost $6 billion in EVs.

Viva la France! It’s enough to take your mind off culture ministers who apologize for Roman Polanski while freely admitting to molesting children (in their own books)!