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European Automakers Reluctantly Embrace Electric Cars

European automakers are warming up to the idea that the future involves a lot of battery-powered cars, whether they like it or not.
Until recently, European carmakers have insisted that the best way for cars to go green was to either use diesel fuel or to improve efficiencies in the combustion engine. Hybrids were a waste of time and capital, they argued.

But pressure from the U.S. and Chinese governments are changing that equation. At the Frankfurt Motor Show this week, there are several battery-powered concepts, including the Audi A2 electric car and the BMW i8 car concepts. Several are destined for the U.S., which so far has not embraced clean diesel as a greener alternative as Europe has.

"This is a social and political issue," said Frank Van Meel, head of electro-mobility strategy for Audi. The U.S. has made battery-powered cars a priority, and China is pushing for the same thing, so to remain competitive in those markets, European automakers have to provide some electric options. "There is a lot of interest in electric cars today."

The electric A2 forced Audi to confront issues other carmakers have already faced: How do you make sure pedestrians are aware the car is coming? (Audi put LED lights on the outside of the car.) With a silent engine, how do drivers know the car is on? (Lights come on inside, and the gear shift rises up when it's ready to go.)

The car charges in 1.5 hours with a 400-volt current, and in four hours on a standard home outlet. It can also be charged on a wireless pad, where the car is parked on top of a charger and slowly charges without a plug.

Europe has pushed its carmakers to satisfy strict carbon-emission standards, but the regulations don't say how the automakers need to meet those demands. So, the automakers have focused on diesel options, favored by consumers who enjoy the zippy power that comes with diesel. Besides getting better fuel economy than unleaded gas ("petrol" in Europe), diesel is cheaper in Europe as well, making it a much thriftier option for car buyers.

Hybrids simply haven't made sense for European drivers: Not only are they about $3,000 more expensive than standard combustion-powered cars, they only provide real fuel savings when driving at slower speeds, like in urban settings. Given the strong public transportation options in Europe, many people opt to take buses or trains in cities. Diesel make more sense when driving on highways. It is very popular for autobahn driving where diesel's fuel economy really shines.

But in China, diesel is not an option for car drivers. The Chinese market is becoming one of the biggest markets for European luxury carmakers, so an automaker without an electric option in China could lose significant market share.

Van Meel said European customers are starting to express more interest in battery-powered cars.

Other electric cars shown at the Frankfurt show:

Volkswagen NILS concept

A one-seater car designed primarily for commuting. The NILS is 34 inches wide and 10 feet long, and can go 40 miles on battery power. It's a teeny one-seater that looks like something the Jetsons would drive, if they couldn't fly.

BMW i3 and i8

Both all-electric cars show BMW's plans to provide electric-only cars. The i3 uses carbon fiber to make the vehicle light, and the company says the styling is pretty close to what they plan to produce.

Smart ForVision

Another pint-sized smart car, but this one is electric. The concept car has golf-ball-like dimples on the roof, to improve aerodynamics. If you like the looks of the smart car, then you might think this one is cool. If not, then it still fits in the same goofy design bucket.

Mercedes electric B-class

With sales set to start in 2013 in some markets, the electric B-class is pretty close to what the automaker plans to sell. The car's electric-only range is 62 miles.

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