Electric avenue is just around the corner

G Magazine | July 6, 2010

Just a few years ago the prospect of whisper-quiet, energy-efficient and pollution-free motoring still seemed the stuff of science fiction movies and environmental pipe dreams. But now the electric avenue is just around the proverbial corner.

As consumer demand for fuel efficiency pushes hybrid-engine technology from niche to mainstream (exhibit A: the hybrid version of the popular Toyota Camry now rolling off the production line in Australia), the automotive industry is gearing up (or more correctly, gearing down, given electric vehicles require no gears) for a fully electric future. There are predictions that up to one in five cars on Australian roads will be fully electric by 2020.

That might seem overly optimistic given that the Holden Commodore was still Australia’s biggest-selling passenger car in 2009 – accounting for 4.7 per cent of all new car sales, compared to 1.1 per cent for all hybrid vehicles.

But the wheel can turn quickly. You only need to consider that just seven years ago the world’s biggest carmaker at the time, General Motors, completely turned its back on electric cars after deciding its EV1 project would never make money. Now, GM is no longer the world’s biggest car-maker. Rick Wagoner, who stepped down as CEO in March, conceded last year that cancelling the EV1 and not investing the right resources into hybrid-engine technology was the worst decision of his nine-year tenure. GM is racing to catch back up to Toyota, and across the global auto industry there’s a broad consensus that the time has come for electric vehicles.

In March, Australia’s first large-scale electric vehicle trial began in Perth, considered the most challenging city for electric vehicles because of its long average commuting distances (with a population slightly more than a third of Sydney spread over an area twice the size). The two-year project, involving 10 electric cars and a similar number of charging stations, will collect and evaluate data about recharging patterns to forecast the infrastructure required to make electric cars viable for the average motorist.

While electric-powered cars have been around as long as internal-combustion models (indeed, it was not until the discovery of cheap and plentiful oil reserves in Texas in the 1920s that petrol-powered models gained an edge over electric ones), lack of research and development left several key obstacles to motorists – and therefore manufacturers – embracing electric vehicles: range, upfront cost, availability and comparable infrastructure to the neighbourhood petrol station.

Range rovers

It is really only in the past decade or so that technological advances have bridged a once yawning chasm between the capacity of rechargeable batteries and the internal combustion engine and fuel tank. Electric vehicles can now give fossil-fuelled models a run for their money when it comes to both driving range and running costs.

The problem, as electric car enthusiast Matthew Lacey explains, is that even though the average Australian motorist does not drive more than 40 km in any given day, they still want a vehicle that will go considerably longer without refuelling or recharging, and a greater range increases the cost of an EV exponentially.

“After many years of being told you need a vehicle with long range, most [people] believe it,” Lacey says. “The result is what we call ‘range anxiety’. Where an EV with a 60 km range may be viable to someone, range anxiety forces them to buy one with 120 km range. The less that range gets used on a daily basis, the higher the relative battery depreciation cost is.”

Lacey, who is studying electrical power engineering at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, is an active member of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA). He owns a Vectrix electric scooter and is working on converting a 1987 Toyota MR2 to electric – DIY conversions being, until just recently, the only way to get an electric car in Australia without the major expense of importing one.

On the road

If you want an electric car now, custom conversion, or buying an already converted car from an AEVA member, is worth considering, as there are still only a few options for new electric cars in Australia, and they don’t come cheap.

One is the evMe, built by Energetique in Armidale, NSW, using a Mazda2 body. It has a range of 160-200 km, a top speed of 150 km/h and costs about $70,000. That compares to less than $30,000 for a Mazda2.

In a similar vein, Blade Electric Vehicles in Harcourt, Victoria, offers the Electron, an electric version of the Hyundai Getz, with a range of up to 100 km, a top speed of 110 km/h and a cost of $48,000, compared to less than $18,000 for the top-of-the-range Getz.

The first major automaker selling an electric vehicle in Australia is set to be Mitsubishi, with a version of its “i” city car. The i MiEV, expected to go on sale within a few months, has a range of about 140 km and a top speed of about 130 km/h. Mitsubishi is coy about its price. There are rumours it could be as low as $30,000, but don’t hold your breath, since the version being released in Britain is tipped to have
a price tag of £38,699 (about $63,270).

It will probably be at least a couple of years before EV prices start looking competitive compared with internal combustion engines. By then, perhaps the big logistical obstacle of batteries that need to be recharged will have been smoothed out.

While you can, in principle, plug an electric car into any electrical supply, it takes decidedly longer to charge up than to pump petrol into a tank. When you’re out on the road, or travelling a long distance, you don’t want to be waiting a couple of hours (minimum) to fully charge up.

The Californian company Better Place has global ambitions to overcome this problem by establishing a green transport infrastructure comparable to petrol stations, albeit with one major difference: drivers won’t top up their batteries but simply swap a depleted battery for a new, fully charged one.
“Most of the time, drivers will be able to keep their vehicles charged using charge spots, which will be deployed at a customer’s home, in their workplace and in common public parking places,” explains company spokesperson, Alison Terry. “But when driving any distance longer than their car’s battery range, the swap system means they can get back out on the road in a few minutes.”

Better Place plans to start building a network in Canberra in 2011, fully powered by renewable energy, and across the rest of Australia from 2012. “This will make Australia the third country in the world with widespread electric car recharge infrastructure after Israel and Denmark,” Terry says. “Trials and infrastructure installation in both countries is set to begin next year with services being offered in late 2011.”

Now, it seems, all we need to win the petrolheads over are electric versions of the Commodore and Falcon.

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