Llewellyn Plugs In: Berlin without walls

Cities need to ‘think different’ when it comes to cars, argues Robert

By Robert Llewellyn on July 5, 2012 2:31 PM

It’s very hard for a Brit of my generation to go to Berlin and not think about… you know who; to not think about my dad flying overhead dropping… you know what. Basically, in the immortal words of Basil Fawlty, don’t mention the ‘W’ word.

However, once I was actually in Berlin, it became increasingly hard to ignore the subtle but enormous changes underway in Germany. For a start, this incredible country is literally decades ahead of the UK in terms of renewable energy. One simple statistic puts the effort they’ve made over the past 20 years into sharp perspective: more than half of all the solar panels ever produced in the entire world are installed in Germany.

This results in them being able to generate more than 17 terawatts of solar electricity at any one time. The Germans have more wind turbines than you can poke a stick at, and more technological developments to use and store that energy than anyone has even thought of elsewhere.

The German government is committed to reducing coal and natural gas imports to near zero by 2020, and has decided to scrap its nuclear power programme altogether.

Not only that, but there are also amazing schemes in towns and cities to reduce toxic emissions from cars, trucks and buses. Berlin is full of bicycles; it’s the perfect city for bikes because it’s flat and the legislation is very supportive of cyclists. There are bike lanes, bike routes, and plenty of places to lock and leave your bike. But if you’re sick of cycling, or it’s piddling down, apart from trains and buses there is a car-based alternative on Berliners’ doorsteps; and they don’t even need to own a car.

I had a drive around the city in a car2go Smart car. car2go is sort of like the Barclays-sponsored ‘Boris bikes’ in London, only better, without the corrupt corporate or annoying political connection (OK, it is Daimler initiative, but you get the point), and much more flexible. There is another company called DriveNow, which seems to be equally ubiquitous although they use BMW Minis.

At present, car2go cars are petrol-powered Smart cars, but they are introducing Smart Electric Drive cars in the next couple of months. It’s clear that the electric option for this scheme is completely plausible, and the next logical step. The scheme has launched in a number of other cities worldwide, too.

You have a little membership card that costs you a few Euros a year, plus a very small rental charge each time you drive a car. It’s just a couple of Euros to drive from one side of Berlin to the other. Simply walk up to any one of their thousands of cars parked around Berlin, flash your card, get in, and drive it where you want to go – then get out and leave it there.

You don’t have to take it back to where you started and you don’t have to tell anyone where the car is. When you’ve finished whatever it is you’re doing, a quick glance at the smart phone app will show you the location of another car. In you hop and off you go. We never had to walk more that 150 meters to find one; there are thousands available, and without question this scheme has proved incredibly popular.

We played ‘I–spy’ as we drove around spotting car2go and DriveNow cars zooming about; it soon got boring as there are just too many of them.

Companies like car2go now have huge amounts of data gleaned from millions of short-term rentals. They know that the cars very rarely travel more than 20km during a rental, meaning that electric versions of the cars make a huge amount of sense. You wouldn’t need to charge it – the Smart Electric Drive has a range of 150 kilometres – but if you do plug it in at the end of your drive you get ‘extra minutes’ added to your account, just the same as if you refuel a petrol model.

"We played ‘I–spy’ as we drove around spotting car2go and DriveNow cars zooming about; it soon got boring as there are just too many of them."

I saw hundreds of street chargers, all over the place, many of them with electric cars plugged in. There are even electric-car showrooms on busy shopping streets. The country that brought us all those massive Mercedes and Porsche SUVs is also discovering the huge benefits of electric cars. BMW is starting to produce electric cars. I have now seen two electric VW Golfs in the wild, while the Smart Electric Drive, Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV are all very apparent.

What this new model suggests – and it’s clearly something manufacturers are considering – is that car ownership could fall while individual car use could increase. This would strike a blow against the appalling waste of resources and technology that the current individually owned car represents; any point in time, 90 per cent of all cars in the world are not in use.

With a bit of thought and, admittedly, the odd compromise, that figure could alter so that cars were not in use for a mere 50 per cent of the time. It would mean that we needed fewer cars, fewer car parks, fewer resources, less fuel, less expense and pretty much less of everything, and yet still drive a car when we needed to.

It’s not easy, it’s not what we’re used to… but it is possible.

About Robert Llewellyn

Columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on alternatively-fuelled vehicles, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.

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