Australia does not have a reputation of being slow to adopt new technology, but that is exactly what is happening when it comes to electric vehicles because this technology has been politicised and misrepresented.
This was the lament expressed on Thursday by Robyn Denholm, the Australian chair of electric vehicle pioneer and industry leader Tesla, which this week reclaimed its title of being the most valuable car company in the world – eclipsing Toyota and boasting a market price three times that of traditional giants GM, Ford and Chrysler.
Despite the lack of federal leadership on electric vehicles (who can forget the misleading campaign launched prior to 2019’s election by the incumbent LNP government), Denholm remains optimistic that Australia has the talent and resources to embrace electric mobility and catch up with the rest of the world.
“From an Australian perspective we are lagging in terms of adoption rate, the stats prove it, which is quite unusual for us,” Denholm said in a webinar hosted by the Electric Vehicle Council.
“I’m a tech optimist but I also know – having been in the tech world for over 30 years … we tend to be an early adopter of technology. It doesn’t matter which industry, we’ve been on that early curve.”
Denholm, whose corporate background includes Telstra, Toyota, ABB, and Sun Microsystems, said Australia has a huge pool of “brilliant engineers” and raw materials for batteries that could be put to use to help the development of a domestic industry rather than being exported overseas.
“That whole dialogue of advanced manufacturing needs to happen in Australia,” says Denholm. “How we lay the foundation for the future of our country will be what we grow from over next 30 years.”
Denholm has sat on the Tesla board since 2014 and left a key role in Telstra to take the position of chair, amid controversy after CEO and co-founder and former chair Elon Musk tweeted he would “take Tesla private” in 2018.
Ironically, despite the surging share price and the market valuation of more than $A300 billion, both Denholm and Musk are facing calls from proxy adviser ISS to be removed from Tesla’s board at the company’s September AGM.
She revealed that for the moment, Tesla does not yet have any plans to manufacture in Australia, busy as it is in readying Shanghai for Model Y production, pushing forwards with construction of a fourth Gigafactory in Berlin, and preparing an announcement on a new Gigafactory in the US to build the rule-breaking Cybertruck.
Three steps to EV transition
The EV transition needs to negotiate three steps that Denholm notes have been proven in overseas markets – education on what electric vehicles are (not golf buggies!), addressing range anxiety and ensuring there is adequate charging infrastructure.
To get there, however, requires government leadership.
“The last election was very telling in terms of misinformation that was in the market place,” says Denholm.
“People still think they can’t … do regular commutes with an electric vehicle without topping up, and that is not the case as we know.”
Technology changes and transformations in industries absolutely require government to play a role, says Denholm, noting that technology companies require long term certainty in policy.
“In this space whether it’s on the emissions side and creating certainty about reduction in emissions that need to happen from a vehicle transportation perspective, whether its on the charging infrastructure side … having policy certainty over a horizon [and] making it attractive to industry to get behind it [will ensure] the rest of it will happen,” says Denholm.
Electric vehicles will happen also because they make economic sense.
Denholm pointed to the example of rooftop solar in Australia, which was supported by government policy and incentives but ultimately has given the country the title of highest rooftop solar penetration in the world because it now makes more financial sense to homeowners.
“Consumers speak with their feet, we’ve seen that time and time again,” she says.
With the tipping point for a complete transition to electric vehicles now behind us, Denholm says she believes the day will come in our lifetimes when no more combustion vehicles are sold.
But first Australia, now in its first recession in 29 years thanks largely to the Covid-19 crisis, has a chance to embrace and accelerate the transition.
“Embrace the new technology around renewable energy and electric vehicles, and actually create an opportunity for Australia not just to use the technology but be a player in the technology,” says Denholm.
“It’s my observation that …. periods of economic downturn actually accelerate transition in the tech space,” she says.
“It makes sense economically, because you’re not going to invest in old tech if there is new tech to hand as you’re coming out of a recession. I think we have the right raw ingredients as we go forward to build the next 30 years of growth.
“It’s not just on the resource space, its’ on the intellectual capacity we have in the country and the ability to get things started. The economy is going to reset anyway – to actually reset in a slightly different direction.”
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.