Ready for Change? Electric Vehicle Technologies Challenge the German Automotive Innovation System

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Krakow (2012)


Electric Vehicle, Germany, innovation system, structural change


Electric vehicles (EVs) are not only a radical product innovation. They also change the structure of the German automotive innovations system. But is this system ready for such a change? It consists of systemic linked economic and scientific actors and organizations. Their research and development (R&D) activities are primarily centered on a long established technological paradigm which is mainly concerned with the optimization of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles (Aigle/Marz 2007). Innovative and closely related economic ability of a nation or sector result from the functional complementary of the parts and structures of the innovation system (Mayntz 2009). But if those have for a long period of time evolved around one central technology, changing this technological paradigm becomes a structural problem (NPE 2010).
Alternative drive-train technologies are not a completely new issue to the German automotive innovation system (Jürgens/Meißner 2005). But for a long time, EV technologies have played a rather marginal role. Knowledge and competences of the German automotive innovation system are strongly related to conventional gasoline or diesel drive-train technologies. For EV technologies other competences are needed, e.g. on field like electric drive-train, battery technology, energy infrastructure, system integration, and recycling. Also, the diffusion of EVs requires new and innovative forms of mobility and business models. The German automotive industry seems to be rather late picking up R&D on EV technologies and prefers to stick to the traditional path of optimizing ICE technologies. Even today, while pointing out the importance of EV technologies, actors of the German automobile industry still emphasize the further potential and future relevance of ICE technologies.
The long established technological paradigm of the German automotive industry has strongly influenced the organizational structures of its innovation systems. The question arises, if it is ready not only to change its technological paradigm but also the structures of its innovation system. Will the German automotive innovation system be able to integrate new actors and organizations which are important to cope with existing deficits? And, will this change still come in time to take a leading economical position in electric mobility?
In this paper, I discuss from a sociological point of view the re-structuring of the German automotive innovation system. I chose a descriptive approach to overview the changing R&D activities of major German car manufacturers, suppliers and scientific organizations involved in automotive R&D.
First, it can be shown that the innovation system has been structured around a relatively stable set of technological issues: mechanical engineering, automotive engineering, and mechatronics. But the development of EVs requires research and competences on other issues: electrochemistry, electrical energy storage, power electronics, materials science, electronic engineering and information technology (NPE 2010). R&D on EV technologies requires overall system comprehension and interdisciplinary collaboration of scientific disciplines which have not been co-operating much before. Including new actors and organizations in the innovation system is essential for its abilities, but adds to the complexity of the structure of the innovation system and leads to further differentiation. A second point of this paper is to describe and analyze this new formed projects and co-operations. It can be shown that those projects and co-operations are still in an orientation phase and coordinating structures have still to be established.
Another important aspect of the German automotive innovation system is that actors and organizations are not bound to the national context. Co-operative relations, such as joint ventures and strategic alliances, concerning R&D activities often involve international partners. The German automotive innovation system compensates its own deficits through international knowledge exchange. This adds to the growing competition between new, establishing and old, existing structures e.g. for financial resources. Therefore, a third object of this paper is to describe the role of international partners in the re-structuring of the German automotive innovation system.

Aigle, T., Marz, L. (2007): Automobilität und Innovation. Versuch einer interdisziplinären Systematisierung, Discussion Paper SP III 2007-102, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB).
Jürgens, U., Meißner, H.-R. (2005): Arbeiten am Auto der Zukunft. Produktinnovationen und Perspektiven der Beschäftigung, Berlin: Sigma.
Mayntz, R. (2009): Geleitwort, in: Blättel-Mink, B./ Ebner, A. (Hrsg.): Innovationssysteme. Technologien, Institutionen und die Dynamik der Wettbewerbsfähigkeit, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, 7-8
NPE (Nationale Plattform Elektromobilität) (2010): Zwischenbericht der NPE AG 6 – Ausbildung und Qualifizierung, 30. November 2010, Berlin.


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