Electric vehicles: Taking charge

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With ample sunshine and roofs stacked with solar panels, Australians can plug into the sun to power electric vehicles. So why aren’t we buying more of them? 

Story: Peter Barrett. Illustrations: Frank Maiorana
December 2018

Electric plug with an silhouette illustration of kangaroos and a sunset

Retired farmer Sylvia Wilson is what you could call a “senior early adopter”. “Although some would call me just plain crazy,” she jokes from her cattle station halfway between Gladstone and Biloela, in Queensland. In March this year Sylvia set off in “Bluey”, her newly purchased Tesla S75, on a 20,396-kilometre solo road trip around Australia. 

The self-described “greenie” had bought the electric car on impulse over the internet a few months earlier with her husband, Rod, who was gravely ill with Parkinson’s disease. Both were keen to drive the car to see Western Australia for the first time. “But when [Rod] passed on I thought, ‘Well, this will get me out of the doldrums. I’m going to do that trip,’” says Sylvia. 

The journey turned into something of a mission for Sylvia, who was met along the way by fly-in-fly-out companions including her daughters, friends and sisters. And when she finally rolled into her Central Queensland driveway 110 days later, she became the first woman to drive an electric car solo around the country. “I just wanted to prove it could be done.” 

Australia still trails global leaders, with EVs making up only 0.2 per cent of our total new vehicle sales.

It’s a remarkable story, but where does it leave the rest of us? What is the state of electric vehicles (EVs) in Australia, and how do we compare to other nations? 

Head of the Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, says there are currently 24 EV options in Australia. Nineteen of those are priced above $60,000 and most cost more than $100,000. 

The good news is that more affordable models – priced at $60,000 or less – are either here or on their way, including the Renault Zoe, the Nissan LEAF, the Hyundai Ioniq and the Hyundai Kona. (Turn the page for reviews of the Zoe, LEAF and the pricier Tesla Model X.)

A recent report by the Electric Vehicle Council and Monash University – backed by ClimateWorks Australia – showed that despite recent growth, Australia still trails global leaders, with EVs making up only 0.2 per cent of our total new vehicle sales. 

Australians bought 2284 electric cars in 2017, up 67 per cent on the previous year, but our estimated national fleet of 8000 EVs looks underweight when compared with the 10,000 tootling about in New Zealand, whose population is five times smaller than ours.  

“Around the world at the moment the production of electric vehicles is scaling up,” says Behyad, adding that Australia has long been an attractive place for automotive investors, who value our strong market for new vehicles. 

“But we are seeing, particularly in the EU, North America, China and right across Asia, countries taking very strong, decisive actions in order to accelerate their market for electric vehicles, to make sure they get the technology first, and all the benefits that that technology brings them.”

‘A car company doesn’t make money out of them but we get to benefit from things like cleaner air.’

And there’s the rub. While other countries adopt a “carrot and stick” approach, legislating for emission reduction and tax incentives to make EVs more affordable (EVs make up more than 40 per cent of new vehicle sales in Norway, for example), Australia has by comparison done little to intervene, particularly at the federal government level. 

Both Britain and France have agreed to ban the internal combustion engine by 2040. It may seem like a radical move to some, but long-term political decision-making like this gives certainty and confidence to investors, allowing the markets in those countries to flourish. 

There are broader issues at stake too, argues Behyad. 

“It’s a tricky thing. It’s why governments need to be the ones to step in because the benefits of moving to electric vehicles are all societal benefits. A car company doesn’t make money out of them but we as Australians get to benefit from things like cleaner air.”

‘There will be a lot more EVs on our roads in the next five to 10 years, but how many compared to the rest of the world?’

He predicts that the falling cost of EV batteries over the next five to 10 years will mean EVs become cheaper to build, own and run than internal combustion engines, causing EVs to overtake them in market share. 

“Globally, the certainty that this change is happening is 100 per cent – it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The question for Australia is: There will be a lot more electric vehicles on our roads in the next five to 10 years, but how many compared to the rest of the world?”

Meanwhile, companies are already investing in the charging infrastructure needed to keep all those potential Australian EVs rolling. (See the sidebar on the facing page detailing RACV’s investment in ultra-rapid charging network Chargefox.)

Wim Elshout, a Dutch sales manager with global tech firm ABB, visited Melbourne recently to talk at the All-Energy Australia Conference. He says it’s already possible to travel across Europe in all directions by EV, and top up at high-speed charging stations. 

“The most exciting thing that I see is that within the automotive market now things are coming together,” he says, explaining that commuter cars are increasingly able to be charged with high-voltage electricity. 

If you make your own power, charging your vehicle is potentially free.

“We are now really at the stage where we have infrastructure available for cars as well as for buses, and they’re using almost the same technology. Next after buses there will be the smaller delivery trucks. Having the technology available to charge all these types of vehicles with almost the same standards… that really excites me.”

In Victoria, recent rooftop solar and battery incentives could help boost sales of EVs too. If you make your own power, charging your vehicle is potentially free. It’s also worth pointing out, says Behyad, that Australia is a net leader in the uptake of residential rooftop solar. Could a culture that naturally wants to seize back control of its power generation be fertile ground for electric vehicles too? 

“What we really need is federal government policy, they’re the ones who own the policy that needs to change,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of positive discussion but no action yet.”

Back on her cattle station in Queensland, Sylvia just hopes that she can influence others by getting about as often as she can in Bluey. 

“The best way to change people’s attitudes about these cars is to take them for a drive or let them drive it,” she says. “You can see the light goes on in their brain – they just suddenly get it.” 

Illustrated futuristic car with an electric plug at its rear


RACV is investing in electric vehicle network Chargefox to build Australia’s largest ultra-rapid EV charging system entirely powered by renewable energy. 

The full network will be completed by the end of 2019 with 21 charging stations, eight in Victoria. Fuelled by large-scale solar and battery installation, they will connect the eastern seaboard from Adelaide to Brisbane, and separately around Perth.

The charging stations can be used by all EV makes and models and can add more than 400 kilometres of range in 15 minutes, compared with current stations that can take from two to eight or more hours.

RACV research has found that purchase cost and access to charging infrastructure are key barriers to EV uptake. 

Sylvia Wilson: facebook.com/centralqueendlandteslainterest

RACV vehicle engineer Liam McPhan took three of the latest electric vehicles for a spin.

2018 Renault ZOE Intens car on a road

2018 Renault ZOE Intens

The Renault’s take on a fully electric hatch is small and simply styled, and except for a smaller front grille there’s not much on the outside to suggest it has no internal combustion engine. The biggest giveaway is the tone which is emitted at low speeds. Simplicity continues inside the ZOE; controls are not overbearing. with much of the infotainment system operated through a seven-inch touchscreen with climate control functionality below. The interior experience is similar to what you’d expect in most small hatches, until the start button is pressed. Without engine noise to indicate it’s running the screen comes to life with big numbers, displaying information such as speed and battery percentage. The ZOE works well around urban environments, navigating tight corners and parking spots with ease. The trade-off for ample room in the front is tight rear seats without split-fold functionality, and a small boot. While it doesn’t accelerate at mind-blowing speeds the electric motor of the ZOE responds quickly with plenty of torque for most situations. It’s comfortable out on the open road too. The 41kWh battery gives it a range of around 300 kilometres, covering most commuters’ needs. The Renault ZOE Intens is a viable option as a city EV, and can be picked up for around $53,990 drive-away.

Price: $53,990 (including estimated on-road costs).
Motor: Synchronous with wound motor.  
Front-wheel drive. 
Max power (kw)/rpm: 68/3000–11,300rpm.  
Max torque (Nm)/rpm: 220/2500. 
Range (Green Vehicle Guide): 367km.  
Battery capacity (kWh): 41. 
Charger connection: Type 2.

Nissan Lead car on a road

2019 Nissan LEAF

Nissan’s LEAF is the top-selling EV worldwide with more than 360,000 sold across 51 markets since its launch in 2010. It was originally brought to Australia in 2012 where it sold fewer than 1000 units due to concerns about its sub-200-kilometre range, but it was a great proof of concept for EV technologies to come. This next-generation Nissan LEAF is a big progression and a convincing step up for a low-emissions commuter. With effective battery and motor packaging, it has retained all the space and convenience of a typical small hatchback. A space-saver spare wheel underneath means the boot is large, however the seats don’t fold flat. The 110kW motor performs extremely well, particularly in lower-speed environments. A regenerative ‘eBrake’ throttle means around 90 per cent of driving can be done using only one pedal. After getting used to the pedal operation we found it smooth and enjoyable, allowing us to come to a stop without touching the brake. The range of nearly 300 kilometres in the pre-production model we drove addresses concerns about the earlier LEAF. There’s no compromise in its ride and handling package, and we found it to be a comfortable, capable and entertaining drive around town and on the open road. It will be sold in one high-spec variant with a full suite of safety equipment. The LEAF is expected to launch mid-2019 at a price of under $60,000.

Price: Expected to be under $60,000. 
Motor: AC synchronous motor. 
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive. 
Max power (kw)/rpm: 110/3283–9795rpm. 
Max torque (Nm)/rpm: 320/0–3283rpm. 
Range (Green Vehicle Guide): Not yet tested. 
Battery capacity (kWh): 40.
Charger connection: Type 2

Tesla Model X 100D parked with Sydney CBD in the background

2018 Tesla Model X 100D

There’s something about driving a Tesla Model X that turns heads. We often found onlookers taking photos of our Model X 100D, which was optioned up to around $226,000 on the road, and the falcon-wing rear doors made for a good party trick. They also make entry and exit easy for this three-row, six seat SUV arrangement. Almost everything in this vehicle is automated – even the driver door would swing open as you approach with the key fob in your pocket. The infotainment system has almost the functionality of a modern smartphone, operated from a giant 17-inch touchscreen. It showed average electricity consumption from the dual motors was around 240 Wh/km which, with a 100kWh battery, suggests range of around 420 kilometres. A 30-minute pitstop at the Tesla Supercharger in Richmond gave a range boost of more than 200 kilometres. Out on the highway, ‘Enhanced Autopilot’ helps steer around mild bends, maintaining distance from the vehicles ahead, and can also aid lane changes. Acceleration is very quick, and throttle response seems instantaneous at any speed. Let off the pedal and regeneration kicks in, slowing at a rate that feels like gently braking. The Tesla feels surprisingly well planted around a bend and agile for its size. It’s very wide, but the only time the Model X feels big is in close quarters, sometimes almost filling up a car space. 

Price: From $191,508 (including estimated on-road costs). 
Motor: Dual AC induction motors. 
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive. 
Max power (kw)/rpm: 193/6100–6800 (per motor).  
Max torque (Nm)/rpm: 330Nm (per motor).  
Range (Green Vehicle Guide): 565km.  
Battery capacity (kWh): 100.