Why Is Australia So Slow At Adopting Electric Cars?

Image: Tesla

In the race to adopt electric vehicles, Australia is sputtering along in the slow lane. Rather than growing, Australian sales of electric cars are actually in decline. In 2016 they represented just 0.02 per cent of new car sales – even lower than in 2013.

Contrast that with Norway, the country with the highest levels of electric car adoption. Almost 30 per cent of new cars sold there in 2016 were electric.

Read more: How electric cars can help save the grid

Why are Australian motorists rejecting electric cars while those in other advanced economies are embracing them? As the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) has previously pointed out, high vehicle prices are an obvious barrier. But that is only part of the answer.

Our current research, in which we used online questionnaires to survey Australian motorists’ attitudes to electric vehicles, suggests that a comprehensive network of recharging stations, particularly on popular intercity routes, is essential to encourage drivers to go electric. This seems to be even more important than subsidising the cost of the cars themselves.

Rechargers on highways, in country towns and at service centres need to be fast and convenient, so that motorists aren’t unduly delayed. Without the right charging infrastructure, there is no foundation to allow Australian motorists to go electric with confidence.

The average Australian motorist drives 36km per day for all passenger vehicles (see table 8 here). This is well within the range of modern fully electric vehicles – more than 150km for the models on sale in Australia – and actually less than Norwegians, who drive more than 40km a day on average.

Norwegian drivers also enjoy the highest proportion of rechargers in the world. But on another criterion the world leader is Estonia. It’s credited as the first nation to build a country-wide network, with a recharging station every 50km on major roads, and one in every town with a population of at least 5,000.

Bumps in the road

Every country that has successfully adopted electric cars has done so by providing an effective recharging network. But we can learn from what has gone wrong in some of these places too.

Our research suggests that governments need to ensure that recharging stations work for motorists, rather than just for the network providers. Recharge points should have standardised fittings, easy payment options such as credit and debit card facilities, and prompt maintenance – all features of existing fuel stations.

Imagine if you could only fill up with petrol by pre-registering with a network, such as Caltex or Shell, and making sure you had paid in advance before taking a long trip. It sounds ridiculous, but that is the situation electric motorists face in some places.

Britain has multiple subscriber-only recharging networks, which frequently have chargers that are out of order. Recently, sales of fully electric vehicles have stagnated and it has only been a surge in sales of plug-in hybrids that boosted sales to 1.45% in 2016, up from 1.09% in 2015.

California has solved that problem by introducing legislation to ensure that motorists don’t have to join a network and can pay for the electricity by credit card. As a result of this and other measures, such as privileged lane access and support for workplace recharging, electric cars now represent 4.8% of Californian car sales, far outstripping the US average of 0.9% in 2016.

Another Californian law ensures that the 40% of Californians who live in rental properties can recharge their cars at home. As Australians are increasingly living in high-rise developments, ensuring car parks have the capacity to recharge cars overnight will be critical. The technology exists to enable separate billing for each car, so making sure strata management allows installation will be essential for people in units and flats to adopt this low-polluting technology.

Introducing such legislation will be a necessary first step. China recently announced that it is working towards a timetable to end production and sales of internal combustion engine vehicles. It’s a good example, which Australia would be wise to follow.

This will be critical if we are to reduce transport-related emissions, toxic air pollution and noise, and improve our fuel security in the face of increasingly unstable geopolitical circumstances and our growing dependence on imported fuel.

Read more: End of the road for traditional vehicles? Here are the facts

Without an adequate recharging network, Australian motorists risk being left in the rear-view mirror as the rest of the world’s drivers go electric. With electric cars forecast to reach price equivalency with petrol cars by 2025, we need to help Australians overcome their anxieties about running out of charge before they reach their destination.

Governments can do this by mandating a comprehensive open-access recharging network to speed the uptake of electric vehicles. We won’t be able to fix the problem overnight but we have to get started. There is no shortage of other countries to look to for ideas.

The ConversationThis article was coauthored by Gail Broadbent, a postgraduate researcher at UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science.

Graciela Metternicht, Professor of Environmental Geography, School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW and Danielle Drozdzewski, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


    I would say that entry price is the major barrier in Australia. Charging point access would come a very very distant second.

    With electric cars, unless you buy a Tesla you don't get much. And the cheapest Tesla in Australia is between $140,000 and $150,000 by the time you register and insure it.

    The cheapest entry point for an electric car in Australia is currently the BMW i3 at $80,000. This is for a car about the same size as the $16,000 Suzuki Ignis (granted the BMW has a higher spec, but not an extra $60,000 worth)

    The discontinued Mitsubishi I-MieV had equivalent size and spec in 2012 to a Barina Spark but cost more than $50,000 with on road costs, you could have the Barina Spark in 2012 for under $15,000.

    The, also discontinued, Holden Volt was equivalent in size and spec to one of the more expensive Cruze models, but still managed to cost more than double.

    Compare these with hybrids. A Toyota Camry in 2015 cost only an extra $1000 over the equivalent spec petrol engined variant. That is roughly 2.5% extra.

    Most Australian drivers haven't even got to the point of worrying which charging point will work with their car because the entry price is so high. Only a small group of people seem willing (and financially able) to make the sacrifices it takes to drive an electric car in Australia. Especially when you can get a similar eco-feel-good factor from a hybrid with minimal extra cost.

    Last edited 13/11/17 4:49 pm

    Firstly, Electric cars are just too expensive here,
    Secondly, the distances we need to travel between places is too vast,
    Thirdly, the heat that we get here would most likely destroy the battery cells over a period of time.
    Lastly, not every person is a greenie, I drive a diesel, i can't take an electric car out bush and hope it's going to work the same, while there are initiatives to build electric 4x4's the infrastructure required to maintain, charge etc is virtually non-existent due to the archaic ADR system.

    My two cents

    Electric cars are an environmental fraud.
    The powerpoint you plug them into is more than likely providing electricity from a fossil-fuel fired power station.
    And electric cars so bloody boring.

      Maybe, But those power stations are much more efficient at turning the fuel into electricity, so you still get more power for less emissions. Plus the fact that you can use whatever power you want, so in the future as we continue to move to renewables, this will become less of a problem.
      But as I say, even if we just converted all cars to electric and used the same dirty power stations, it would still be a net win for emissions.

    I wouldn't want two electric cars in the family (of two cars), but one, to be the main driver, for the daily commute, shops, kid drop-off etc would be great.
    But agreed- the main reason is pricing is way out of reach.
    Furthermore, 2nd-hand options are non-existent.

    Don't forget we have an ultra-conservative government that is firmly wedded to fossil-fuel mining and use. It does little to encourage any form of large scale infrastructure investment, and actively undermines efforts to move towards renewable energy sources.

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