Electric Cars Australia – Brief History & Adoption

When it comes to electric cars, Australia may have a very brief history. It seems almost assured that electric vehicles will enjoy a long future down under. Let’s take a look at the origins of electric cars in Australia and where the Australian EV market seems to be going next.

A Brief History of Australia’s Electric Cars

The Early Days

  • Early 1800s: the first electric car designs ever were created, though they ultimately proved unpopular.
  • 1940s: revivals of the electric car in this decade, and in the 1970s, would also go nowhere. The main concern in most cases was the viability of a car which could not travel far without needing to be ‘refuelled’, and the lack of solutions to charging during journeys.

Recent History

  • 1997: the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car, is produced. Today, more than 18,300 have been sold in Australia.
  • 2008: the Blade Electron, the first electric cars Australia builds, pass the tough crash regulations in Victoria.
  • 2010: the Mitsubishi MiEV, a fully electric car, was released to the Australian market. Initial sales are good but drop off quickly, with Australians slow to adopt electric cars.
  • 2010: the Nissan LEAF, the world’s most popular electric car, is first produced.
  • 2011: the Blade Electron ceases production.
  • December 2011: 12 public charging points are installed across the country.
  • November 2012: the Holden Volt, with both hybrid and electric-only elements, is produced.
  • 2014: Mitsubishi stop importing the MiEV to Australia thanks to slow sales
  • Late 2014: the Tesla Model S comes to Australia.
  • 2014: the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, a hybrid with fully electric options, is named Australia’s best-selling electric vehicle after launching this year. It will retain this title through 2016.
  • 2015: General Motors announce they will no longer sell the Holden Volt in Australia
  • 2016: the total number of electric cars Australia drivers own tops 4,000.
  • October 2017: the last Holden car is made, bringing an end to Australia’s car industry; all new cars bought in Australia will now be imports, which brings in interesting implications for the electric car market.
  • End of 2017: there are 47 fast-charge points for long-distance driving in the whole of Australia, 18 of which are Tesla-only.
  • 2025: the future date at which many foreign car manufacturers have committed to electric-only production, causing complications for any country which does not have capacity for public electric vehicle charging.

Australia’s Adoption of Electric Cars

Australia has certainly been slower than many countries to adopt the electric car. This is due to cost concerns, and the impracticality of owning a car without public charge points.

As more charge points have been built, both at home and in public areas, and the price has steadily come down, more Australians have been turning to electric power for their vehicles. There were only 112 electric cars Australia registered in 2010. By April 2017, that figure had grown to 4,420.

However, this is very small compared to some other countries, where that figure might represent the sales of just one particular model during the same time period.

It has not been an easy journey. In fact, sales dropped down to just 55 newly registered vehicles in 2011 before jumping back up to 258 in 2012. 2015 was a very good year for the electric market, with 1,302 sales marking the best yet – though 2017’s figures are not yet fully available. 2016 was another slump year, a pattern which may frustrate car manufacturers who are deciding whether or not to market their vehicles in Australia.

The most popular car in the electric realm available to Australians is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, with 1,666 registrations in the country up to April 2017. That’s an impressive figure, taking up more than a quarter of the electric cars Australia has registered in total.

The fact that the Outlander PHEV is a plugin hybrid, with a petrol engine as the primary source of power and a battery for reducing emissions, helped it’s appeal.

However, it also signifies just how low the adoption has been so far.

As of the 31st January 2017, there were 18.8 million cars registered in Australia in total. The electric vehicles are, therefore, little more than a drop in the ocean of Australia’s car market.

The sales of electric cars are going up in general, but adoption has increased slowly. Australians are clearly not yet used to the idea of going fully electric.

Part of the problem may well be the distance that the vehicles can travel – given that the models with larger batteries tend to cost more, meaning that longer distances can only be covered by those with bigger pockets.

Still, many in the industry feel that there is reason to be optimistic. As sales increase around the world, so, too, do sales in Australia. Even if the revolution is a gradual one, it looks like more car owners are making that conscious choice to switch over to electric power.

The First Electric Cars Australia Sold

The first electric car Australia saw was the Mitsubishi i MiEV. MiEV stood for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle. The car was first released in 2010 and it’s quirky (being kind) styling didn’t help mass appeal.

The five-door hatchback was the electric version of the Mitsubishi i, created to give consumers an alternative option to a petrol vehicle. It was produced in Japan and sold all over the world, including the USA and Europe. The 2010 launch was followed by an extension of sales to further countries following good levels of success. The car was marketed with a range of 160 kilometres (100 miles).

More than 10,000 units sold in Japan during the first few years, with global sales topping 50,000 in 2015. When placed in comparison to these figures, the Australian sales were very small, which no doubt explains Mitsubishi’s reluctance to continue selling the car in this region.

The i-MiEV was first exhibited in Australia in 2009, at the Melbourne International Motor Show, and then went on a tour throughout the country. They conducted a field trial for twelve months which included local, state, and federal government bodies, as well as major fleet operators who were identified as potential customers. When the trial had concluded, sales began in 2010. At first, these were limited just to fleet customers.

The leasing agreement of $1,740 a month for 36 months gave the cars a total value of $62,640. After all payments were made following the 36-month period, the car was to be returned to the dealer. Retail sales then began in August 2011 with the public able to purchase the cars should they wish to.

Between 2009’s launch and June 2014, 252 units of the i-MiEV were sold in Australia.

Diversity and Growth of Electric Cars Australia

From 2010 onwards, there have been a total of 17 different electric car models available on the market. The first one made available to Australians was the Mitsubishi i MiEV, which saw some short-term success – and ended up selling 112 models in 2010.

But that was not the end for Mitsubishi. They came back with the Mitsubishi Outlander P-HEV in 2014. Set up as a more robust compact crossover, it was better suited to Australian needs. This made it a much more popular model, with sales of 863 vehicles in 2014 alone. Though the pace has dropped off heavily as more rivals enter the marketplace, it still remains the most popular electric choice for Aussie drivers.

Nissan’s Leaf entered the Australian market in 2011. Despite being one of the most popular electric vehicles around the world, it has sold a more modest 635 registrations in Australia up to April 2017.

The third most popular electric cars Australia bought were the Tesla Model S, which was first available in 2014. It followed the less successful launch of the Tesla Roadster in 2011, which ended up selling only 11 units before being withdrawn.

BMW has seen a little success with the BMW i3, launched in 2014, but the i8 saw less fortune in the same year. 2015’s BMW X5 xDrive40e and 2016’s BMW 330e did not fare any better.

The Holden Volt saw sales of 80 in 2012 drop down to just 8 in 2015, making it clear why this manufacturer felt that their time in Australia was up.

The Mercedes-Benz C350e launched in 2015, and was joined by the Mercedes-Benz GLE500e in 2016. 2014’s Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid is the sole offering from this marque, with only 138 sales across Australia so far.

Audi tried their hand in 2015 with the Audi A3 e-tron, and slow initial sales seemed to be gearing up much more quickly in 2017.

The Volvo XC90 T8 also got off to a good start in 2016, as the market began to warm up to electric vehicles more.

Finally, Renault is perhaps the least popular brand of electric cars Australia has seen. The Renault Kangoo Z.E. and the Renault Fluence Z.E. have sold just 14 units even when put together: the former only available from 2012 to 2013, and the latter on sale since 2014. However, the newly launched Renault Zoe and Kangoo Z.E. should kick start their presence more broadly.

At the current time, Australian car owners have a choice of 12 different electric vehicles, excluding those which have been discontinued and may be available second-hand.

The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Photo by OSX

We have seen that the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is the most popular of the electric cars Australia seems to want. So, what is it about this particular vehicle that appeals to Australians more than any other vehicle on the market?

It is not only popular in Australia, but has also sold well around the world: it was the best-selling plug-in electric vehicle in Europe in 2014 and 2015, with the UK and the Netherlands being the countries that buy the most units. Sales around the world topped 100,000 in March 2016, with 80,000 of those being sold in Europe. While Australia may not figure in the top list of buyers, it certainly features heavily by taking up almost 5,000 of the remaining 20,000 outside of Europe.

The plug-in hybrid version of the Mitsubishi Outlander which we now know as the PHEV was first unveiled in 2012 at the Paris Motor Show. It features a 2.0-litre engine coupled with an electric powertrain so that drivers can choose whether to go full electric or stay with hybrid power. It has an all-electric range of 52.3 km (32.5 miles), but surely the most appealing aspect of this car is the ability to switch to hybrid power and go further.

The vehicle can achieve a top speed of 120 km/h (75 mph), which may seem slow to drivers who are used to eating up miles of Australian road by driving much faster on the open highways. There is a dust and waterproof encasement around the battery protecting it from the hot and dusty Australian summer roads, which makes it well-suited for the driving conditions.

Charging from empty to full at home takes around five hours, which makes it perfect for an overnight charge. Using a dedicated charging point instead, it can take 3.5 hours, putting it into a more desirable range that may be suitable for charging during the day – for example, parking up at work and charging there, or while shopping. On rapid charge points, an 80% charge can be achieved in just 30 minutes. This makes it a much better placed vehicle for long-distance driving, so long as the charge points are available.

In 2015 the PHEV was the best-selling plug-in car in Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. It is clearly a very popular choice amongst drivers around the world, largely because of the convenience that it presents.

Consumer needs for electric cars Australia

There is currently a lot of call for manufacturers, importers, and the Australian government to make it easier for Australians to buy electric cars. The current situation is problematic, and as electric cars begin to dominate around the globe, it will be difficult for the country to fall behind.

The first problem that needs to be addressed is infrastructure. Australia is perhaps the country in the world that you would nominate as being best for long road trips, thanks to the large distances between cities and popular landmarks. To have a dearth of fast-charging points along these roads is simply unacceptable for the Australian consumer. Who would buy a car that they know will never get them from A to B?

A significant investment needs to be made in adding fast-charging points as soon as possible, and in more locations. Not only that, but public charging points which offer slower charging times should also be more numerous. It should be commonplace for a driver to park up ready to do their weekly shopping, plug the car in, and charge it up while they tick off their list. When they get back, they should expect to have enough charge to be able to get home again.

Another issue is the price. Most electric vehicles are priced above the threshold of $60,000, which makes them inaccessible to the average Australian driver. They are priced in the realm of luxury vehicles, but given that the main appeal of the electric car for the consumer is the chance to save money on fuel, this does not sit well with the target buyers.

If manufacturers were willing to price the vehicles just a little lower, sales would no doubt increase immensely. There is also a question of tax: many other countries introduce tax breaks for people who buy electric cars in order to encourage the switch from fossil fuels. A 33% luxury car tax, which affects almost all electric cars Australia has on the market, is hugely prohibitive.

Behyad Jafari is the CEO of the Electric Vehicle Council, and he has made his thoughts clear. He has called for “incentives or tax exemptions for the purchase of electric vehicles”. He has also pointed out that, since Australia has plenty of the natural resources required to create batteries, a lower tax rate for electric vehicles could in fact prove very beneficial to the economy.

Perhaps the last problem, which is already gradually on the way to being fixed, is the range of the cars themselves. While more charge points may make it possible to undertake longer journeys, most drivers would prefer not having to make enforced stops at all. Rather, they would like to have an electric car that would take them as far as a petrol- or diesel-powered car would.

That change looks likely to come – but it will come in its own time, and is not a problem that Australian governments or consumers can change themselves.

The Future of Driving

Reports suggest that we could see parity between the prices of electric cars Australia buyers could purchase and petrol cars of the same size. That might happen as soon as 2019, according to manufacturers such as Tesla.

Christopher Jones is the national secretary of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association, and has a good overview of the situation. He feels that there is a definite direction towards electricity in the future. “I think we can expect to see every new vehicle sold in Australia being a plug-in vehicle by 2025,” he claims.

If this is true, then big changes need to be made immediately. The future of driving around the world certainly seems to be heading in that direction, as many countries and manufacturers around the world commit to a vision of a future where fewer emissions are created by our daily journeys.

When taking all of the facts and figures into account, it seems that industry leaders may be right to show optimism about the future of the electric cars’ Australia industry. After all, if the whole world is changing, Australia must surely follow. The death of the last car manufacturer local to the country has ensured that.

The only question is whether the country will be ready in time to face the change – or whether it will soon face a crisis of drivers unable to reach their destinations and angry with the government for not making electric power more convenient.

* Featured image courtesy of Joenomias

Keith enjoys nerding out about Electric Vehicles, owning a BMW i3, Tesla Model X and now, running Drive Zero .

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