Electric shock: Australia’s slow drive from petrol cars



More charging stations are needed to make long trips viable in Australia

Zero emissions, improved public health, autonomous technology are just some of the ways electric cars are tipped to change our world, much in the way of the mobile phone.

But Australia is falling a long way behind many other industrialised countries in the uptake of this technology even though the image of an electric car being a slow, golf buggy-style vehicle is a fast-disappearing in the rear vision mirror.

They have become innovative and versatile, from luxury models through to the family car with room for five people and their luggage.

The “electric car revolution” as described by Josh Frydenberg, then-Environment and Energy Minister, in this Fairfax opinion piece, offers a whole new world in vehicular transport. The minister was keen to encourage Australians and business to jump on board.

And so I did. I don’t own a Tesla – one of the companies that pioneered the electric vehicle market – but the president of the Tesla Owners Club of Australia, Jude Burger does, and she offered to take me for a spin.

Burger started the club two years ago to build a community of people who shared her enthusiasm for owning an electric car. It’s now grown to 330 members across Australia.

She is very black and white about the impending revolution: petrol cars are bad, don’t bother with plug-in hybrids, the world should just go fully electric. Now.

“Not all Tesla owners are greenies, there are plenty of people that vote Trump,” Burger said.

“But for me it’s absolutely a green focus. Petrol is disgusting, it’s smelly, it’s wrong, the world is twisted that we haven’t already switched to electric,” she said.

We walk down the stairs of National Library of Australia in Canberra after talking for almost two hours about electric cars.

I look around the car park, expecting to spot the Tesla S immediately, in the same way that you do a double-take at any luxury car, but my wandering eyes are interrupted when Burger tells me: “I just turned on the air conditioning, by the way”.

We were about 200 metres away from her car. The climate system of the Tesla is great for keeping the groceries cool, I’m told.

As we approach the car, the S’s side mirrors unfold, and the retractable, motion-sensing door handles appear from within their sockets.

Inside, the first thing you notice is the 17-inch touchscreen display that controls everything from adjusting the car’s suspension height to using Spotify on its very own network.

This display transforms the car into a gadget. In fact, it also gets software updates every so often to make the car run better.

“It’s like an iPhone on wheels,” Burger said. And she is right. The software of this car is as important as the hardware.

Burger turns off the radio and air-conditioning so that I can hear the engine start. But I don’t hear it. I just notice when we effortlessly pull out from the curb-side parking.

And then we take off. The S can go 0-100kph in 4.2-seconds. The feeling is paradoxical because on one hand, you’re being jerked back into your seat, but on the other, you’ve never been jolted as smoothly and silently with the driver’s foot flat on the accelerator.

We park underground and Burger opens the doors to show me the courtesy lights that project the Tesla logo onto the ground. Has Elon Musk created a Bat-Signal for all hell-bent Tesla enthusiasts?

To buy a Tesla Model S, you’re looking at $A130-thousand, before the inclusions of the Luxury Car Tax and other fees that vary state-to-state.

Limited options

The cost is prohibitive and affordability is just one of the reasons most Australians aren’t considering going electric when car shopping. At the start of this year, the cheapest electric car available in the Australian market today is the BMW i30, starting at $A75-thousand.

Australia is one of the slowest countries in the OCED to experience the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs).

According to a report by ClimateWorks Australia, between 2015-16, when global EV sales increased by 40 per cent, Australia’s fell by 23 per cent. We represent just 0.1 per cent of the global EV market.

So, why don’t Australians have more affordable access to a product that can run off renewable energy, that would help the country achieve our part in the Paris Climate Agreement, that would improve public health, reduce air and noise pollution, reduce ongoing petrol and maintenance costs, reduce our nation’s reliance on imported oils, and open the doors to fully autonomous capabilities?

Beyond Zero Emissions report projects that the switch to EVs would eliminate at least 6 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

The answer to that question, according to those in the electric car industry, might well lie in the federal government’s lack of incentives for Australians to buy electric cars, despite the encouragement of Josh Frydenberg.

Behyad Jafari, CEO of the national body representing the EV industry, Electric Vehicle Council, said affordability is not necessarily the problem, but what we have available in Australia.

“Because we haven’t had that direction here in Australia by our government, there’s quite a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace,” Jafari said.

“Vehicles priced between $28-to-$40-thousand available internationally require a lot more scale to make those returns. To bring them to our market, they [manufacturers] need to know that they are going to sell two or three thousand of each of those cars in order to make the return on their investment,” he said.

Australia off the pace

But car companies do not have that certainty in Australia, unlike other countries which have sent clear signals to the auto industry by setting deadlines to end petrol and diesel car sales.

France and the UK will do so in 2040, Norway and the Netherlands in 2025, India in 2030, and the world’s biggest vehicle market, China, has pledged a ban ‘in the near future’.

Jafari said that these countries and others also employ a range incentives that make purchasing and owning an electric car simple, such as exclusive driving lanes and discounted or exempted parking charges and road tolls.

“The reason [the uptake of EVs] is set by government decision-making is because the benefits of that transition aren’t economic to any one company.

“So, Toyota or Ford or whoever don’t make any money from public health or reduced carbon emissions, but it is society as a whole that improves. Governments around the rest of the world are stepping up and saying, ‘well that’s our job to improve society’.”

“[Car companies] are looking at where they are going to deploy that investment first – obviously in the places that are most favourable – and every other country in the OCED are doing a better job than us in providing favourable conditions,” Jafari said.

Who knew?

Lack of government action is how Dave Southgate, electric car owner and author of e-book, Living with a Plug-in Electric Car in Canberra, realised that this is a bottom-up issue.

Southgate bought his car in 2014 when the first Nissan Leaf was available in the market, priced at $A40-thousand.

Having worked on climate change issues with the federal government for about 30 years, he became increasingly frustrated with the slow progress. When it came time to retire, he took matters into his own hands.

“I could see the urgency and need for something to happen and it wasn’t happening,” Southgate said.

“It was terrible to leave (the public service) but in one way it was good to get out of it. I was like ‘okay, it’s time to do something myself’.”

After buying the car, Southgate gathered data over the course of seven months, making note of his experiences of owning an electric car in Canberra.

Four years on from his project, he still drives his Leaf, describing it as an “absolutely faultless family car”.

Southgate acknowledges the biggest issue with Australia’s uptake of EVs is the lack of choice, but he also sees a problem with the lack of government-sponsored information that would correct a lot of misconceptions and sentiments about electric cars.

“I have friends that are petrol-heads that still think they won’t take over, that they’re a passing fad.

“The best thing the ACT government could do is an education campaign. People think because there’s no charger on the corner, they’re gonna run out of charge.

“People don’t realise how much cheaper the fuel is to run, how comfortable it is and how safe they are.”

Running out of charge, or ‘range anxiety’, is a common concern among Australians and yet it is a fear that wouldn’t affect many in their day-to-day lives.

Most electric car drivers will charge overnight with at-home chargers. The typical urban daily travel distance is 35km, which is well below the range limit of most new electric cars.

For example, the next gen of the Nissan Leaf is expected to have a minimum of 240km in range.

However, the viability of long distance travel is a work-in-progress. As of 2016, there was a total of 467 dedicated electric vehicle charging stations around Australia, and  40 of these were fast chargers suited for long-distance travel.

Tesla has installed superchargers along the road from Adelaide to Queensland. But then, how would anyone know all of this unless they specifically conducted the research?

I took Dave Southgate’s idea on a public information campaign to Anna McGuire, a climate change policy officer in the ACT government. She agreed that more could be done.

“I still think there’s some misinformation out there about EVs and that would be really useful to provide up-to-date information on the technology that’s available, the range these cars can drive, where the charging infrastructure is available, but also the benefits to the individual.”

McGuire also agreed that introducing more electric cars into Australia would offer up opportunities for economic growth.

“The ACT government is looking into potential measures that would attract that kind of investment in the ACT and make it the hub for EV technology,” she said.

However, drastic government action like putting a deadline on petrol and diesel car sales, she said, would have to come at a national level.

Photo by Ruby Becker
Reducing the price of electric vehicles is the next frontier.

The future is here

But for now, where does this leave the rest of us in this transitional period?

The indications are that it will only get better. In fact, even within the next year or so, the Australian market will see new and more affordable electric cars under $A60-thousand.

While the full transition to electric vehicles is slowly gathering pace, the possibilities are not limited to cars.

Designers and innovators say electrification could revolutionise ships, planes and public transport. They are describing a time not-too-far away when autonomous technology will change the way we move around the world.

Transit would be faster, quieter, safer and more systematic. There are predictions the world will run off renewable, sustainable and endless energy, and our dependence on drilling into this earth would lessen more and more until the need wore out completely.

These ideals are futuristic, of course, but the mainstream use of electric cars is not.

As Jude Burger states, it’s just a matter of when.

“There’s a saying that goes ‘the future has arrived, just not everywhere’. It’s only futuristic because people haven’t seen it…[but] we’ve had Teslas for 10 years.”