Shortly before Christmas, a world record-setting electric car developed by small German start-up DBM Energy caught fire and burned. Authorities are investigating and conspiracy theorists have since accused established car-making giants, which were embarrassed by the record, as responsible for the fire.
The story started in October, when Mirko Hannemann, the 27-year-old founder of DBM Energy, drove his yellow and purple all-electric Audi A2 from Munich to Berlin, a trip of some 375 miles taking seven hours, without recharging the car's battery.
As we discussed last week, there seems to be nothing remarkable about a claim that an EV with a 115 kWh battery pack has covered 600 kms on a single charge.
The record-setting trip was a media phenomenon. Hannemann steered the car directly into the German government district, where Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle jumped in for a quick drive in the courtyard of his ministry.
Bruederle, who had helped fund the project with $380,000, called the car's battery -- based on what DBM Energy calls the KOLIBRI AlphaPolymer Technology -- a "technological quantum leap." He urged the German car industry to consider using it in their future electric cars.
Observers say the German automobile giants weren't amused. The likes of Volkswagen and Daimler have invested billions of dollars in lithium-ion-based battery systems but are behind French and Asian competitors in rolling out an electric car. And then a small start-up shows them all up.
Soon after the trip, however, accusations surfaced that DBM Energy might have cheated. Why didn't DBM Energy agree to have its battery checked out? Also, for a few minutes toward the end of the drive, the car had been out of sight, so maybe there was an illicit battery recharge? Was the trip just a big scam to lure investors?
Hannemann vehemently denied the accusations, saying that he couldn't simply open the lid on all details of his technology.
In a bid to defuse further speculation, he provided a German government agency with KOLIBRI battery packs that are being tested for safety.
On its Web site, the company reacted to allegations of fraud when setting the record. It provides what it says is a Global Positioning System protocol of the trip and notes that "manipulation on the car or the battery, for example an unobserved recharge, can be absolutely ruled out with this protocol." Moreover, more than 30 witnesses joined the trip.
The German government, in a reply to questions submitted by the opposition Green Party, backs DBM Energy's account, saying it had no reason to believe that the vehicle's record wasn't valid.
Then, at the height of the controversy shortly before Christmas, the record-setting car, parked in a warehouse rented by local utility Gasag, burned. Authorities have been investigating on suspicion of arson.
"We are allowed to say only this: Neither the car nor DBM Energy is responsible for this fire," Hannemann told the Wirtschaftswoche weekly.
This shouldn't be the end for DBM Energy. The record-setting car is now junk but the battery pack had apparently been taken out the vehicle before the fire. A non-inflammable battery was in the car, Hannemann said, countering speculation that the battery might have caused the fire. Either way, the KOLIBRI battery can be reproduced and is currently built into a new car, Hannemann said.
The engineer in the Wirtschaftswoche interview said he was taken aback by the attacks in the media and the rumors that have since surfaced. Everyone deplored that German car companies lag behind their competitors when it comes to battery technology, Hannemann said.
"And then comes a 27-year-old inventor, shows how it could be done, and gets a beating for it," he said. "We have done nothing wrong. This has nothing to do with fair play."