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.”