Killing the petrol car with an electric shock

Zero emissions, improved public health, autonomous technology: electric cars are speculated to revolutionise our world in the same way as the iPhone. But Australia is falling far behind our global counterparts in the uptake of this technology. Ruby Becker finds out why.


Perhaps thanks to the celebrity that is Elon Musk, electric cars have almost become synonymous with the Tesla, despite only having three models in the market since 2008. Yet those three models have transformed the idea of an electric car from slow, golf buggy-looking things to high-end, innovative supercars that can outperform Lamborghini at almost a quarter of the cost and with room to fit five and enough luggage for a family holiday. The future of transport no longer requires speculation – it has arrived.

So, do you want to board this “electric car revolution” as Josh Frydenberg, our Environment and Energy Minister, called it in his Fairfax opinion piece, and buy the most affordable Tesla available in the Australian market, the Model S?

They are undeniably nice – I know from experience. Not because I own one, but because The President of The Tesla Owners Club of Australia, Jude Burger, does and offered to take me for a spin.

Jude started the club two years ago after wanting to find a community of people who shared her excitement of owning a Tesla. It’s now grown to 330 members across Australia, all who want to promote and enjoy Tesla, electric cars, and their network.

Jude 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. 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 after talking for almost two hours about electric cars. I look around the car park, expecting to spot the S immediately, in the same way that you double-take at any luxury car, but my wandering eyes are interrupted by Jude telling 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. As Jude says, “It’s like an iPhone on wheels,” and she is right, the software of this car is as important as the hardware.

Jude turns off the radio and air conditioning so that I can hear the engine start. I don’t hear it. I just notice when we seamlessly pull out from the curb-side parking. And then we take off. The S can go 0-100kph in 4.2-seconds. This 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 as silently as a Tesla with a flat foot on the accelerator.

We park underground and Jude opens the doors to show me the courtesy lights that projects 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 $130-thousand AUD, before the inclusions of the Luxury Car Tax and other such fees that vary state-to-state. Affordability is just one of the reasons most Australian’s aren’t considering going electric when car shopping. The Tesla isn’t a bad example either because the cheapest electric car available in the Australian market today is the BMW i30, starting at $75-thousand.

This is bad news for someone like Nick Arganese, a 22-year-old who just recently graduated from university and who now is a full-time videographer. Nick is still driving his first ever car, a second-hand silver 1999 Mazda 323 Protege that he’s had for about six years, but “it’s a ticking time bomb, it could go any second,” Nick said with a laugh. He seems both realistic and indifferent by the looming and inevitable loss.

Nick’s in a good position to buy a car in the near future. He’s looking for something around $20/$25-thousand that will suit his job which involves lots of driving and lugging around equipment anywhere from the city to somewhere off-road. He likes the idea of eliminating fossil fuels with electric cars “for the sake of the environment, for the sake of our children and our children’s children,” Nick said.

But despite this consideration, he thinks electric cars are out of his league. “My current understanding of it, which isn’t much, is that they are so expensive so that I haven’t even considered it. But I think there’s also a lack of information. At the moment, on my Facebook feed and the websites I’m on, I’m always getting advertisements for SUV cars cause that’s what I’m looking at. Electric cars have never forced their way into my life.”

Nick’s sentiment is common. Australia is one of the slowest countries in the OCED to experience the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs). In fact, according a report by ClimateWorks Australia, between 2015-16, when global EV sales increased by 40%, Australia’s fell by 23%. We represent a deplorable 0.1% of the global EV market.

But why? Why don’t Australian’s have more affordable access to a product that can run off renewable energy, that would help our 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? A Beyond Zero Emissions report projects that the switch to EVs would eliminate at least 6% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

The answer to that question may come down to our government’s lack of initiative and support to skew the public towards buying electric cars.

CEO of the national body representing the EV industry, Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, said that it’s not necessarily affordability that’s 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. 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 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.


But car companies do not have that certainty in Australia, unlike our global counterparts which have sent clear signals to the auto industry by setting deadlines to end petrol and diesel car sales: France and the UK in 2040, Norway and the Netherlands in 2025, India in 2030, and the world’s biggest vehicle market, China, pledging a ban ‘in the near future’. 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,” said Behyad.

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.

Dave bought his car in 2014 when the first Nissan Leaf was available in the market and priced at $40-thousand. Having worked on climate change issues with the federal government for about 30 years, he became increasingly frustrated with how slow the process was. So 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. It was terrible to leave but in one way it was good to get out of it – I was like ‘okay, it’s time to do something myself’,” said Dave.

Upon buying the car, Dave gathered data and noted his experiences over the course of seven months to develop an honest insight into what it’s like owning an electric car in Canberra. Four years on from his project, Dave still drives his Leaf – an “absolutely faultless family car”.

Though Dave agrees the biggest issue with Australia’s uptake of EVs is the lack of choice, 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 – they’re a passing fad,” said Dave. “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 Australian’s 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. As for long distance travel, it’s a work in progress. As of 2016, there were a total of 467 dedicated electric vehicle charging stations around Australia – 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’s thoughts on an ACT public information campaign to Anna McGuire, a Climate Change Policy Officer in the ACT government, who agreed that there’s more information that needs to happen. “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.”

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

But for now, where does this leave people like Nick in this transitional period?

Well, it’s only going to get better. In fact, even within the next year or so, Australia is set to be getting new, and way more affordable, electric cars. Maybe the most exciting example of this is Tesla’s Model 3, which is set to start at $50-thousand.

graphNote: prices for the predicted models are estimates. Actual prices have not officially been released. All prices were based on information available online. Median and average income were based on ABS data of weekly incomes and multiplied by 46 weeks.

Certainly, the full transition to electric vehicles would be exciting, but to think that electrification could revolutionise ships, planes and public transport is even more imaginative. Picture autonomous technology and how that would change the way we move around the world: transit would get faster, quieter, safer and more systematic. The world would 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. It’s a matter of when.

Jude put it best: “There’s a saying that goes ‘the future has arrived, just not everywhere’. It’s only futuristic because people haven’t seen it. They’ve had Teslas for 10 years.”