PARIS – Sales of electric vehicles in Europe so far have disappointed compared with the expectations of a few years ago, but the lack of an infrastructure may not be an important reason.

Consultants at a CESA industry meeting here on automotive electronics, sponsored by the French automotive engineering society SIA, are united in their view that battery-electric vehicle sales will not reach significant volumes by the end of this decade. The debate is over why.

“Ambitious targets will not be reached,” says Roland Berger consultant Wolfgang Bernhard of Germany. There will be no total cost of ownership benefits for buyers of plug-ins, full hybrids or all-electric EVs, and “battery electric vehicles will be only a niche.”

Ian Riches, of the British group Strategy Analytics, agrees. “We are never going to see a battery filled with as much energy in five minutes as happens with liquid fuel.”

The weaknesses of EVs are many, but the lack of a recharging infrastructure often is cited as a major barrier. “The infrastructure is not there for the EVs,” says Juergen Bilo, Continental’s vice president-hybrid and electric vehicles unit.

However, participants at the industry meeting cite evidence on both sides of the debate.

Hiryuki Aoki, secretary of the Japanese CHAdeMO Assn. that standardized the country’s direct-current quick-charge network, says infrastructure clearly encourages EV use.

“From the beginning, we didn’t think that public charging would be used much, but was mainly for relieving people’s minds,” he says. “However, the way it is used, people driving mid and long distances want to charge when they reach their destination.”

He also says fast chargers set up along the 563-mile (350-km) Nagoya Tokyo freeway doubled the number of EV users. When there were just two fast recharge points on the highway, only 19% of drivers made the trip. When seven stations were installed in 2011, 46% of EV owners used the road.

In all, there are 685 fast-charge stations in Japan, with 450 set up by Nissan and 188 by a spin-off from CHAdeMO funded by Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi. A consortium of gasoline stations has set up 28 fast-charge points to protect those businesses.

“The volume of deployment of fast-chargers has changed the business scene,” Aoki says.

Japan now has 25,000 EVs vehicles on the road, almost all from Nissan and Mitsubishi, and shopping centers are installing fast-charge stations that are timed for 1-hour recharges. “They want people to park for one hour,” he says. “If they can park for more than one hour, they will go somewhere else, and if the time is less, people will look but not buy.”

On the other side of the debate, Pascal Feillard, director-strategic marketing at PSA Peugeot Citroen, recounts the experience of the city of La Rochelle, France, which started an EV program in 2003.

“At the beginning, people didn’t use (EVs) because of the lack of infrastructure. However, over the next 18-24 months, they changed (their minds). People said, ‘I don’t need these charging stations because I go back home every day.’”

London has invested heavily in public recharging points, Strategy Analytics’ Riches says.

“We got to the point (where we had) more charge points than electric vehicles. Infrastructure is not the key barrier for most people. Most people have home recharge facilities. Infrastructure was not a subject for gasoline (when the auto industry began). I don’t see increasing investment in infrastructure as really helping the market.”

France has budgeted €50 million ($65 million) for setting up public charging stations, but Stephane Evanno, vice president-electrification business development at Robert Bosch, says government funding would be better used to subsidize home recharging points.

“In France, we are too slow in terms of deployment of infrastructure,” he says “Bordeaux recently put out a call for tenders for 10 charging stations. Ten is not what is needed to sell (EVs).

“Why not help people who buy EVs have access to a home wall box for charging for a very cheap price,” Evanno adds. “This would help the market take off. We have to convince people that public charging is not that important.”

Total, the world’s 15th-biggest energy producer, is not interested in putting EV recharging points in its 2,000 service stations in France. If electric cars do take off one day, and Total’s customers need recharging, the company says it will let someone else lease space for a recharging post.

“If our clients need electricity, we will have electricity for them,” CEO Christophe de Margarie tells WardsAuto, “but it won’t be Total bringing it in and selling it. It will be a third party who leases space. You have to be in your core business. Our core business is definitely gasoline.”

In Germany, for instance, several Total stations have EV recharging facilities run by local governments. “Can we be the one who, in advance, is offering electricity before the cars exist?” he asks rhetorically. “No.”

Arnaud Montebourg, minister for industrial redevelopment, has asked the French auto industry and communities to install a recharging infrastructure. That effort is going slowly except here in Paris, where the Autolib electric-car-sharing system has about 2,000 EVs and 5,000 recharging points in 1,100 stations.

Europe’s fast-charge infrastructure is only at the beginning, partly because the auto industry has not come up with a Europe-wide standard, as lobby groups from France and Germany battle to have the winning idea.

Nonetheless, EV sales are beginning to grow.

“The market is difficult for (sales of standard) cars,” PSA’s Marc Tison, director-electric vehicle program, says. “But for electric vehicles, the market is increasing. In 2011, the European market was 14,000 (EVs). At the end of 2012, it will be around 25,000.”

French brands Renault, Peugeot, Citroen and Bollore accounted for about half of Europe’s EV sales this year, Tison says. France is the biggest market, followed by Norway and Germany.

In 2013, an electric Smart, the BMW i3 and Renault’s purpose-built electric Zoe will come to market, significantly increasing EV offerings. If they meet customer expectations, sales will follow, many analysts say.

But PSA’s Feillard takes a different point of view. “The main reason why electric-car sales haven’t started is because (an EV) doesn’t meet the basic expectations of a car. If you have just one car, you will never go electric. People never buy a car based on their average usage. They buy on expectations,” such as taking a long drive for a vacation.