Image: 63nd IAA - International Motor Show
Miguel Villagran  /  Getty Images
A worker polishes the Volkswagen L1 hybrid concept car at the international motor show in Frankfurt, Germany.The world's biggest auto show runs until September 27.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/25/2009 8:20:03 AM ET 2009-09-25T12:20:03

The turnstiles have been spinning this week, as German motorists finally get the chance to see what all the media fuss has been about at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

From one end of the vast Frankfurt Messe, to the other — a distance of nearly a mile — close to 100 different vehicles are making their first public appearance.

There are, as one can expect in the land of the Autobahn, the obligatory high-performance sports cars, like the 197 mph Mercedes-Benz SLS, as well as plenty of sedans, crossovers and minicars.

But the theme of the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show can best be summed up in one word: “electrification.” Virtually every manufacturer has unveiled a vehicle using the latest battery technology, whether hybrids or plug-ins, extended-range electric vehicles or pure battery cars.

And while industry officials may be quick to talk up the newest in electric transportation, they’ll also admit it’s not going to be easy abandoning the time-tested internal combustion engine. And the cost is likely to be substantial to governments, the industry and consumers.

“The battery cars of the past weren’t very sexy. Nobody cared,” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, global marketing director for Audi. “Now it’s sexy, and the prime topic at this show.”

The Audi e-tron is among the sexiest cars taking a bow at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. With its aggressive, low-slung design, the 2-seater is a close cousin to the German maker’s R8 supercar, but uses a Lithium-Ion battery pack to power four individual motors, one for each wheel. Audi intends to put the e-tron — which can launch to 60 in just 4.8 seconds — into production in 2012.

At the other end of the vast Halle 5, Audi’s sibling division, Volkswagen, is targeting the other end of the automotive market. Its e-Up, which reaches showrooms in 2013, is based on VW’s new Up minicar, and is conceived as an urban commuter vehicle. It will be relatively low cost by battery car standards, but while VW isn’t giving out any hard numbers, industry observers expect it could cost twice as much as the gas or diesel-powered minicar.

The price of battery technology will come down with volume production, predicts Elon Musk, founder of California’s Tesla Motors, which is selling the $100,000 battery Roadster. The maker’s Model S will be a $57,000 family sedan with more room and more range.

But that’s still not cheap, and raises a basic question about which end of the market might be more open to battery technology. Audi CEO Rupert Stadler says his company is starting out with e-tron, because, “This is where the customer is most willing to pay a premium for this type of technology.”

Though initially slow to the segment, Mercedes-Benz is taking the same approach, in part because that may be the only way to keep its traditional product range alive. In major markets, such as the U.S. and Europe, they’re facing tough new restrictions on fuel consumption and the emissions of CO2, a gas strongly linked to global warming.

“Does sustainability mean we have to build small cars? Not necessarily,” insists Dr. Thomas Weber, the Daimler AG board member in charge of technology, pointing to the S500, a battery-based version of Mercedes’ big S-Class, which could get up to 70 mpg.

But even if luxury customers accept the higher cost of battery technology, they face problems similar to those who’d buy the tiny e-Up. Range, for one thing. Even the latest LIon technology has trouble delivering much more than 150 miles per charge.

One possible way to get around this is with an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, like the Opel Ampera, which borrows its E-REV technology from the Chevrolet Volt. When the battery runs down, after about 40 miles, the car switches on its gasoline engine and keeps going.

Even then, Ampera needs to be plugged in overnight, just like e-Up and e-Tron. That might be easy for suburban commuters with a garage, but many potential customers live in urban centers, where gaining access for their car to a basic electric socket or a high-power, high-speed charger could prove difficult.

Working with the German government and an alliance of energy providers, a consortium of German automakers, including Mercedes and BMW, plan to invest at least $1.5 billion over the coming decade, eventually creating about 1,000 alternative power service stations across the country. Each will provide both chargers and access to hydrogen, the clean, lightweight fuel used by the BMW Hydrogen7 and Mercedes’ new F-Cell, the latter also debuting in Frankfurt.

“But where will that energy come from?” asked Johan de Nysschen, CEO of Audi of America. Like many battery skeptics, he warns that there could be a need for a lot more electric power plants, if EVs catch on, “but if we use dirty power, like coal, we’re just swapping emissions from the tailpipe for emissions from the smokestack.”

Even the biggest proponents of electrification, speaking in Frankfurt, acknowledged there are numerous challenges to the widespread adoption of the technology. Some manufacturers are looking at alternative business models, for example. Nissan may sell motorists the company’s new Leaf battery-electric vehicle, but lease the LIon battery pack at a rate close to what a typical driver would spend on fuel each month.

The wild card is consumer acceptance, of course, and no one is certain how widespread that will be. “The common thinking,” said Audi’s Schwarzenbauer, is that “It will take until 2030 to have half of the market go electric.”

Even that figure is a matter of debate. But considering the pressure to find a clean alternative to the internal combustion engine, no one is willing to risk sitting on the sidelines, which is why some form of electric propulsion was the price of entry at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Frankfurt Auto Show

loading photos...
  1. Crowded house

    Spectators roam the floor of the Frankfurt Auto Show on opening day Thursday. Electric is the big buzz at the 63rd annual show, and nearly every major automaker has at least one on display. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Revamped roadster

    Visitors view the Lamborghini stand and the new model Reventon Roadster on Thursday. (Frank Rumpenhorst / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. VW looking UP

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands with Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn next to a Volkswagen E-UP car. (Volker Hartmann / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Opening preparations

    A worker sweeps the floor next to a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG on Sept. 16 during press day at the 63rd Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany. The exhibition, open to the public Sept. 17-27, features 781 exhibitors from 30 countries. (Sascha Schuermann / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ready to shine

    A worker polishes the Volkswagen L1 concept car during press day at the Frankfurt Auto Show. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Charged up

    A man demonstrates an RWE charging device for a SMART electric car. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sneak preview

    Journalists preview the electric car NXG by Indian car manufacturer Reva during press day at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Around 10,000 journalists from 90 countries have been accredited for the show. (Thomas Lohnes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An inside look

    A Frankfurt Auto Show visitor peeks into a car with a transparent body at the exhibit of car parts manufacturer TRW. (Torsten Silz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Gentlemen, start your engines

    Attendees look at Land Rover engines Sept. 16 at the Frankfurt Auto Show IAA. (Johannes Eisele / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Decked out in red

    A model matches a car at the Abarth booth Sept. 16 at the Frankfurt Auto Show. (Frank Augstein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Eco-car

    The Renault concept car Zoe Z.E. is seen on the second press day of the Frankfurt Auto Show. Renault aims to become the first full-line manufacturer to market zero-emission vehicles by 2011. (Daniel Roland / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Embraced by new technology

    Visitors get information about Volkswagen Bluemotion technology Sept. 16 at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Volkswagen offers three super-economical, low-emissions VW models -- the Polo, Golf and Passat (Frank Augstein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. One-liter car

    The Volkswagen L1 concept car is seen at the Frankfurt Auto Show. The car gets roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) from one liter of gasoline. (Frank Augstein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. New way to get around

    The Renault concept car Twizy Z.E., seen at the Frankfurt Auto Show, is an all-electric vehicle aimed at urban dwellers. (Daniel Roland / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vision in white

    The BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics concept car is seen at the Frankfurt Auto Show. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.36%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.08%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.51%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 10.86%
10.86%
Cash Back Cards 16.41%
16.41%
Rewards Cards 15.95%
15.95%
Source: Bankrate.com