There are so many electric vehicle (EV) Urban Myths around that I had to leave a few off my recent Top 10 list of those deserving to die. One of these was that “nobody buys EVs, or even wants to buy one”. This one appears to be very much Australia-centric though.
It is certainly true that sales of new EVs have been very low ever since they first went on sale here in 2011, and there are still few offerings here that can tow and none that would make good work vehicles.
Even last year, Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEVs) made up less than 1% of all Australian new car sales – and that was an all-time high. But if look beneath the bonnet of this peculiarly Australian EV urban myth for a moment, and the truth is quite different.
First-up, EV sales in the rest of the world are skyrocketing. September 2021 saw overall European PEV (Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) + Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV)) sales hit 24%, with many European countries well ahead of this figure. (See figure 1).
Figure 1: European new BEV and PHEV sales figures (Percentage of overall vehicle market)
The reasons for this are many. First of all, it is the result of decades of consistent work to reduce pollution in large cities, which have led to ever stricter laws limiting vehicle emissions to improve the air quality in urban areas.
(California in the US has been a leader in this area since the late 1960s). EVs easily meet these requirements, but ICE vehicle are now struggling to do so as requirements tighten – with some manufacturers already being caught out on cheating to meet the targets. (Remember Dieselgate anyone?).
|Country||Jan – Jun 2021
|US||2.6 (California 8.3)|
|World||7.1 (4.7 BEV, 2.4 PHEV)|
|EU||16 (7.6 BEV, 8.3 PHEV)|
Figure 2: World new BEV sales figures (Percentage of overall vehicle market)
Then there are the measures to help limit global warming and tackle climate change. For these, vehicle greenhouse emissions over time need to reduce to zero – something ICE vehicles can never do.
EVs already provide lower overall greenhouse emissions than ICE – plus, as electricity becomes increasingly derived from renewable sources, EVs will eventually be zero emission in both production AND use.
On top of these ‘push factors’ are a set of pulls luring buyers to EVs. The EV driving experience is quieter and smoother, providing instantaneous and more powerful acceleration than internal combustion engine vehicles.
Size for size, EVs built on EV-specific platforms offer more room for occupants and luggage as the drive train components take up less room. EVs also have the advantages of convenient home ‘refuelling’ and lower service costs, as well as producing significantly less waste. (No oil and filter changes, no spark plugs, no air filters etc, etc).
Put simply, electric propulsion is a more efficient (and overall better) technology than internal combustion. Electric cars are also the path to allowing the development of autonomous vehicles – and the likely transport revolution this innovation will bring about.
All-up, just as the in the beginning of the 20th century the ICE vehicle supplanted the horse and carriage (as well as both steam and electric-powered cars) – electric motors as a technology are now supplanting internal combustion engines.
As a result – global EV sales are rising at an ever-increasing pace.
Looking at figures 1, 2 and 4, it can be seen that Australia sits at least four to five years behind the rest of the world. Australia cannot buck the trend forever though as the end of the ICE vehicle is near – both through legislated end dates by government, and manufacturer announcements for ceasing all ICE vehicle production. (Figures 5 and 6).
It is worth noting here that currently, automakers with announced end-dates for ICE manufacture make up over a quarter of all passenger vehicle sales.
|Country||End date for new ICE sales|
|USA: (States only at this stage)||End date for new ICE sales|
|California, New York, Massachusetts||2035|
|Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Oregon||2050|
Table 3: legislated world ICE end dates by country
|Manufacturer||End date for ICE manufacture|
|Fiat||Between 2025 and 2030|
|Ford||2030 (Europe only)|
Table 4: world ICE manufacture end dates by manufacturer announcement
So why is it so easy to still promote the idea here that EVs are a niche market that are unlikely to ever take over from ICE?
Visibility and availability are key. With so few EVs sold in Australia so far, many people have yet to experience (or even notice) an EV. EVs are also not available here in many vehicle segments, so there has been little incentive to investigate EV alternatives when looking for a new or second-hand car.
These combined go a long way to explaining why, in people’s busy lives, many are yet to spend a lot of time looking at EVs beyond what the media and politicians have to say about them. Sadly, a lot of that has been quite sensationalist and/or negative in the effort to score political points or create ‘click bait’ horror headlines. The result is that in Australia, EVs still have a lot of headwind to overcome to be considered as a viable alternative.
However, from my experience of organising and delivering EV information events and seminars – the public is both increasingly aware of EVs, and ever more frustrated at the lack of offerings and government inaction. In fact, I find that any public event involving EVs and/or EV information seminars results in very large attendances indeed!
Overseas, the situation is quite different. In Europe, the UK, USA and China – EVs are both visible in numbers and different models (in many more segments) than we have here.
Ones with good tow ratings are starting to hit overseas markets (some even available here – for example the Hyundai Ioniq 5, Audi e-tron, Volvo XC40 and BMW xDrive) plus many electric light commercial van models are already available overseas.
Several EV work/off-road utility vehicles are close to production with some already beginning to roll off production lines. (For example: the Rivian R1T and the GMC Hummer). Again – all this is overseas EV action.
However – even with all other things being equal, it would still be hard for Australia to be allocated EV models in any number as we are a small market well away from the supply sources. After all, why would manufacturers send them here when demand still outstrips supply in their home markets?
It is therefore hardly surprising we would lag other countries in EV adoption – but the bigger reason why few EVs are brought here is to do with government policy. Overseas, governments offer both carrots and sticks to drive manufacturers to build and sell (and help people to choose) vehicles that don’t pollute the local environment or contribute to the greenhouse effect.
There, bonuses are offered for selling low emission vehicles which can be used to offset the overall emissions of the ICE cars they sell. Sticks, in the form of fines, are also imposed if their overall sales exceed the set emission limits.
(As an example, Tesla has in the past few years made a tidy profit by selling their emission credits to other manufacturers in Europe and North America).
Tax concessions for EVs, tax hikes on ICE vehicles and subsidies for EV purchases are also some of the many ways governments help their populations choose EV over ICE when buying replacement vehicles.
Here in Australia – we have no national fleet greenhouse gas emission limits, and we have the poorest vehicle emissions and fuel quality standards in the OECD.
These are federal responsibilities that cannot be replaced by state/territory actions. As a result, in place of federal action the states and territories have used the powers they do have to implement alternative EV policies and incentives.
Unfortunately, they have to date been piecemeal and inconsistent with each other, resulting in the quite perverse outcome of effectively creating multiple Australian EV car markets.
Given the Australian car market is already relatively small, breaking it into state/territory sized pieces makes it all but impossible for manufacturers to select models and bring them here in numbers that make the effort worthwhile.
When it comes to EV adoption, Australia is an outlier – but it has nothing to do with a public uninterested in EVs or EVs not being suitable for Australian uses.
It is an artefact of the interaction of what’s happening overseas and poor national vehicle (and environmental) policy decisions here through the deliberate creation of a fake partisan divide over climate action in general – and electric cars in particular.
On the flip side – it is a simple fix. Federal action on vehicle emissions, greenhouse gas reduction and positive support for greener transport options (like tax incentives, government procurement policy and industry support) would flick the switch on an Australian EV transition – and ensure a quicker, cheaper and more equitable transition to all forms of low to zero-emission transport options.
Bryce Gaton is an expert on electric vehicles and contributor for The Driven and Renew Economy. He has been working in the EV sector since 2008 and is currently working as EV electrical safety trainer/supervisor for the University of Melbourne. He also provides support for the EV Transition to business, government and the public through his EV Transition consultancy EVchoice.