Like many countries, Germany has set itself some pretty tough targets for encouraging electric vehicles.

The government aims to have a million plug-in electric vehicles on the country's roads by 2020. While electric-vehicle sales in Europe are increasing, that's quite some work to do by the end of the decade.

Still, the German government has some support. Unlike Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, Volkswagen chief Martin Winterkorn says such a target is achievable--provided that figure includes lightly-electrified vehicles like hybrids that don't actually have plugs.

According to Bloomberg, he told a panel that Volkswagen "will make our contribution towards this goal".

Volkswagen has taken its time launching electric vehicles onto the market, instead concentrating on popular and increasingly fuel-efficient diesels both in Europe and elsewhere.

However, three arrivals are imminent in Europe--the Volkswagen e-Up and e-Golf, along with the very low-volume XL1 plug-in hybrid--and VW also sells hybrid models of its Jetta compact sedan and Touareg sport-utility vehicle in the U.S.

Partner Audi has also dabbled in electric vehicles, from the spectacular Audi R8 e-tron to the upcoming Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid, due later next year.

Winterkorn says plug-in hybrids in particular "offer the biggest market potential". Technology from the space-age XL1 is expected to filter into other VW products, such as the Up city car.

Longer term, VW could offer as many as 40 different plug-in hybrid and electric models, should demand for plug-ins soar. But "soaring" doesn't look likely any time soon.

French automaker Renault currently dominates the European market for electric vehicles, where it has sold more than 34,000 units since the first of four battery-electric vehicles arrived in late 2011--but that's still a tiny fraction of overall European vehicle sales.

BMW, whose i3 VW sees as a direct rival for its e-Up, is quickly filling its order books for the city car, and Tesla Motors sold more Model S in Norway this September than any other vehicle. The movement is there, but not millions-of-units-there yet.

There's still hope for achieving Germany's target, though, if that number of "electric cars" includes not only plug-in hybrids but conventional hybrids without plugs (the kind sold in Japan since, oh, 1997 or so).

If the definition of "electric car" isn't expanded to conventional hybrids, then such a target looks much less likely to be achieved.

And while hybrids are a good first step towards electrification, including them in the totals could pose the risk that they'll become an excuse for failing to develop more advanced electrified vehicles.

So the next six years are likely to be rather interesting on the European green-car policy front....


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