What it’s like to drive an electric vehicle

Blue electric vehicle driving along the road.

Sofia Levin

Posted November 02, 2020

Affordable electric vehicles are upon us. We get an EV novice to test one out.  

“Is it on?” That’s the first thing I asked from the driver’s seat of my loaned electric vehicle (EV). Over two weeks, I heard it again from my husband, Matt, and every single passenger. 

I’ve never considered buying an electric car. It’s not because I don’t care about the environment (I do) or cost restrictions (the Renault ‘Zoe’ is about $45,000), it just isn’t top of mind. I’ve never seen an advertisement for an EV, nor do I know someone who owns one. It’s ironic, really, because not only am I in the market to upgrade from the Ford Focus I bought in my early 20s, but as someone who lives in the inner city, works from home and often drives short distances, it’s perfectly suited to my lifestyle.

I fit nearly into the ‘young professional couple’ category and don’t have any costly kids just yet. Annual servicing is less than a couple of hundred dollars, and the increase in my electricity bill would be between a quarter and a fifth of what the average person spends on petrol each year. So why don’t more people – especially those like me – have them?

The look of the car would prevent me from buying one, especially given that the slick Tesla Model 3, estimated to start at around $50,000 with a range that tops the Zoe by about 45 kilometres, will be released any moment now. But we’re at the start of an affordable EV boom. Over the next 18 months, nine new plug-in hybrid and battery electric models are expected to hit the Aussie market, with five priced at $60,000 or less. 

I love Zoe’s keyless locking mechanism, which meant that as long as the keys were in my bag, I didn’t have to open, lock or start her. With the car in park and the handbrake up, it’s simply a matter of pushing the start button. 

There's a manufactured noise to let you know the car is on despite the silence. Under 30 kilometres, there’s another that sounds like a constant tone from a meditation app or a mosquito buzzing around your ear. Thankfully you can also turn it off. In Europe and America they’ve legislated for a compulsory noise to be generated for pedestrian safety – I had one close call with a  man stepping onto the road so I can see the benefit.  

Driving an EV changed my bad habits. When not accelerating (i.e. coasting or braking), the car charges. On Zoe’s dash is a wheel of bars that display green if you accelerate, yellow if you really accelerate and blue during regenerative braking and coasting. 

I competed with myself to get the kilometre range to be the same as it was when I left the garage. It also made me drive slower and anticipate red traffic lights. When Matt was driving, I was nervous about running out of power – he has a tendency to put his foot down. 

When we took a road trip to Geelong to scout locations for Matt and his partner’s business, Matt thought it was a smooth ride, no better or worse than any other car. After looking around town, we had about 60 kilometres of range left, so we plugged Zoe in beside the pier and went for fish and chips before heading home. 

I was surprised that the initial influx of EVs didn’t have a standard socket. Looking at a crowd-sourced app called PlugShare that tells you where public charging stations are located, I was shocked to find 11 different plug options.  

I’ve since found there are only two likely to be encountered in Australia, but it creates the same frustration as having to move to a new phone charger with a different attachment. Worse still, for my EV on a Type 2 socket, PlugShare lists only about six charging points in Melbourne, while the Chargefox app lists four. 

I charged with ease in North Melbourne and Geelong, simply popping the cap as you would with petrol, plugging the lead from the charging station to the front of the car and pushing the green button.  

Although most of our grid is powered by coal, it’s still cleaner to run an EV vehicle than petrol equivalents, and the incongruity of EV vehicles charged via coal at least highlights the renewable energy conversation.

Tim Washington, director at JET Charge, a supplier and installer of EV charging hardware and software, says that when EV users’ electricity bills jump a little, they start shopping around and become more engaged with where their power comes from. 

They look for companies backing renewable and solar sources, switching not just their provider, but also their attitude towards power consumption. 

“Nobody is saying that EVs are a silver bullet solving all environmental and congestion issues,” he says. “They’re just part of a very large puzzle we’re all trying to solve.”  

In many ways driving an EV felt like a safer, warmer – if not a lazier – version of getting around town by bike. 

As a renter, I’m not in a position to own an EV given the lack of public charging stations. Solutions exist for those in high-density and apartment living, but street parking at home poses a problem. The first kerbside charging stations are expected this year, according to JET Charge. My family regularly holidays in East Gippsland, currently outside the range of EVs on the market. Hopefully Tesla opens its Supercharger network to non-Tesla EVs. 

When technology resolves these issues, there is no reason for me not to buy an EV beyond cost. The initial investment would have to be the equivalent of what I would save on petrol and servicing. As someone looking to buy a new car at around the $30,000 mark, the numbers don’t add up yet. But in five years when public charging infrastructure improves and prices drop, I’ll probably reread this article with a chuckle.

Renault kindly assisted RA with this story with the loan of the Zoe. A full road test of the Zoe will be published in RA later in the year.

Many cars driving fast along highway.

EV's are starting to become a lot more prominent on our roads.

The state of EVs

EVs have been around for years, but there was a noticeable push in 2011 with a few models making the rounds until 2014, when Tesla was introduced to the market. Since then, demand has increased, although Australia lags behind. RACV’s manager of environmental sustainability, Simon Mikedis,  says it’s still early days in terms of adoption in Australia.  

“EVs make up 0.2 per cent of new vehicle sales in Australia compared to some other countries like Norway, which is now over 40 per cent,” says Simon. “In the UK they just hit five per cent, and they’re a comparable market to Australia. We’re predicting we’ll reach 10 to 15 per cent here by 2025.” Simon estimates there are now 7000 to 8000 EVs in Australia. 

An inquiry into EVs by the Victorian Legislative Council Economy and Infrastructure Committee found that the upfront cost of EVs compared to other vehicles is prohibitive for Victorians. A June report from the Electric Vehicle Council, with contribution from RACV, stated that although Australia is behind global leaders in EV uptake, 2017 saw a 67 per cent increase in EV sales from the previous year, a 64 per cent increase in the number of charging stations available (from 476 to 783) and a 44 per cent increase in the number of EV models.

On the charge 

According to Tim Washington, director at JET Charge, which supplies and installs EV charging equipment, some EVs include the installation of a charging station in the upfront cost. Otherwise you’re looking at $2000 to $3000 for the charging station fully installed.

The price of charging an EV varies between vehicles, but the Renault Zoe will set you back $8 to $10 for a full charge, which halves on an off-peak rate. AGL Energy also offers a dollar-a-day plan, where for $365 a year you can charge your EV as much you like. 

There are also some charging technicalities to get your head around, including three ‘levels’ and four plug ‘types’.   

Level one is the equivalent of plugging the car into a wall socket. Level two will get you up to 120 kilometres of range per hour, while level three provides the fastest charge (as fast as a full charge in 15 minutes). 

There are four approved plug connectors, and Tesla uses a modified plug for its Supercharger network, granting Teslas exclusive access to an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes for road trips along Australia’s highways. 

RACV’s manager of environmental sustainability, Simon Mikedis, says RACV is working strongly through the Electric Vehicle Council to push for a standardised electric vehicle charging network.