Electric cars are the environmentally friendly, super practical alternative to polluting combustion-engine cars. Or, they are the latest gamble, following a perilous effort to replace a perfectly functioning product. Which is true? It depends on who you ask. The pros and cons of electric cars in Australia are often contingent on the driver’s preference and their use of the car.
If electric cars are a fad, they’re receiving significantly more investment than competing emerging vehicle technology. There is no universal agreement on if the right time to buy an electric vehicle (EVs) is now. However, industry experts are increasingly viewing the replacement of combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles as a ‘when’ more than an ‘if’.
Whilst hybrid cars combine electrical energy storage and fuel based engines, the National Transport Commission defines electrical cars as “a vehicle which uses electricity stored in batteries and an electric motor in place of an internal combustion engine and a liquid petroleum fuel tank”.
Pros of Electric Cars
More Environmentally Friendly
Electric cars have a much lower environmental cost compared with vehicles using petrol or diesel. Even when you consider the significant amount of energy produced by burning coal, an EV reduces, on average, the net transport greenhouse gas emissions by a ton per year. This reduction rises significantly to 4 tonnes with 100% green power.
No Exhaust Fumes
Pollution produced by the burning of fossil fuels in a combustion engine is a considerable contributor to air pollution. One of electric cars’ biggest advantages is that they don’t have an exhaust system and their environmental costs are limited to their production and the sources of electricity which are used to fuel them.
Switching from a combustion engine to an EV avoids 150kg of pollution, often in urban areas, each year, with an improved public health value of $400 per car according to the Australian Transport Council.
Main Costs Of Electric Cars
Vehicles have three main costs for their lifetime. The first is the cost of production, the second is the expense of fuelling them and the third is maintaining them.
Falling Purchasing Cost
Currently, the costs of producing and purchasing an electrical car are much higher than what is involved with a traditional car. However, the costs of manufacturing electrical cars have fallen significantly in the recent past .
The Tesla Model 3, slated for launch in 2018, is expected to be on the market for between $50,000 to $60,000. Tesla’s strong sales performance and their founder Elon Musk’s desire to democratise EVs, looks only likely to drive prices down.
Whilst EVs are not cheap when compared to similar sized combustion engine cars, they are certainly more affordable than previously released models.
Low Fuel Costs
The second cost is the price of fuel. Considering the impressive efficiency of electric cars compared to internal combustion models, the cost per kilometre to fuel an EV is approximately between a third to a quarter of the cost of petrol. The price of petrol and diesel, despite a recent fall in prices, looks set to only increase as cheap supplies are exhausted.
Advancements in biofuels have not made the gains that many expected and a significant amount of investment has been shifted away from biofuels towards EVs; leaving electricity produced from renewable sources to be the most viable fuel in the future.
Reduced Maintenance Cost
Engines that burn fuel are much more complicated and contain many more parts, which can malfunction. These engines require considerably more regular maintenance and the cost of parts tends to be high.
Electric cars have batteries which, as the technology advances, will have a longer life. They also don’t require expensive exhaust systems or oil changes.
Australian Electric Car Owner Incentives
The government has created a $100 million finance program, backed by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which provides buyers a 0.7% discount for EVs. Although Australia is considered to be behind many other developed countries, the government appears likely to increase its financial incentives for electric cars in the future. The Australia Institute, for example, has recommended exempting electric vehicles from the luxury car tax.
Insurance companies, such as the RAC, offer discount incentives for electric cars and other lower emissions cars that qualify for its ‘Less Emissions Mission’. They offer up to 25% off insurance, and other discounts on breakdown cover for drivers, proving that it’s not just governments who are offering incentives to make the switch to electric.
Charging Electric Cars At Home
Smart charging can ensure that electric vehicles are charged off peak rather than contributing to large volume load periods on the Australian grid. EV owners can do this at home in about 15 seconds without ever having to go to a gas station again. The charging process is simple and crucially cheaper than fuelling at a gas station.
A network of smart-charging batteries has the potential to provide utilities with low-cost energy, offering a bank of energy on standby. Vehicle batteries can store and return power to the grid, termed ‘vehicle to grid’ or V2G technology, which would lessen the expensive process of energy storage for electricity suppliers.
Additionally, this would support a high involvement of renewable energy, whose intermittent power producing capacity requires considerable storage capacity, in the grid.
Cons of Electric Cars
Higher Initial Costs
Research and development costs are huge with EVs. This is often recouped by the companies with higher costs for the first generation of consumers. When the technology is more established and dispersed, later generations will reap the benefits without paying the same cost.
Early adopters are often doubly disadvantaged by significant higher purchasing costs and comparatively lower resale values than traditional cars.
The size of the market is affected by demand and vice versa. Until prices are lower, it will be difficult for electric cars to become a mass-market product.
However, whilst it is still a niche market, it will be difficult to achieve the economies of scale that will bring costs down significantly. There are two million EVs in use globally, but just 1369 electric vehicles were sold in Australia in 2016, accounting for just 0.1% of the market, according to Climateworks Australia.
Previous Australian governments have argued that they cannot offer incentives without an adequate supply of EVs, similarly without these incentives it’s difficult for producers to invest.
Smaller Range of Models
There are approximately 40 electric / hybrid vehicles on the market in Australia, which consist mostly of compact, pure electric cars and midsize plug-in hybrid sedans. This can be off putting for consumers who want to purchase an electric car but feel that their individual needs are not met by the limited range.
The trend that currently exists is for electric versions of existing attractive models, rather than electric-only models. Several major automakers set aggressive goals of releasing a dozen or more new plug-in models in the coming years, promising electric cars in many different segments.
Infrastructure takes time and large financial investment, and it cannot be clear whether government or business should pick up the cheque. EVs need charging stations, experienced mechanics and parts dealers. Whilst the technology is more niche, the available infrastructure will be less available.
This is especially problematic in countries as large and with so many sparsely populated areas as Australia has.
Limited Car Range
Electrical cars have spawned a new fear, ‘range anxiety’. EVs have a set range of miles that a fully charged battery will last for. When this begins to dwindle, a driver may worry. However these fears, like most about electric cars, are not unfounded but rather exaggerated. Studies have shown that driving ranges for EVs, usually between 100 km to 400 km per charge, are more than adequate for the vast majority of the market, considering that 90 percent of Australians drive a daily distance of fewer than 100km.
Where to Charge on the Road?
There are currently 476 dedicated electric vehicle public charging stations in Australia. The number of charging stations is increasing yearly, although this growth is slower than most electric-car enthusiasts would like.
These charging points are generally concentrated in the higher density urban areas. However, on longer drives in more sparsely populated areas, the availability of charging stations can be problematic.
Long Refueling (Charging) Time
Those who do find a charging point then have to contend with the length of time it takes to refuel an electric car. EVs commonly can add approximately 20 to 25 miles of range in an hour of charging from a 240-volt source of electricity.
Whereas internal-combustion engine powered cars can add a couple hundred miles of range in five to 10 minutes, EVs can take hours. New DC Quick Chargers, capable of adding about 50 miles of range in around 20 to 25 minutes, are increasingly available in regions with a relatively high number of electric cars.
A look at the pros and cons of electric cars reveals that EVs are still not perfect but they are becoming a more viable option for consumers. As options increase, prices go down, and infrastructure evolves to suit the needs of electric car drivers, it’s likely there will be more EVs on Australia’s roads in the not so distant future.