The Morrison government on Friday released a plan to reduce carbon emissions from Australia’s road transport sector. Controversially, it ruled out consumer incentives to encourage electric vehicle uptake. The disappointing document is not the electric vehicle jump-start the country sorely needs.
In contrast, the United States has recently gone all-in on electric vehicles. Like leaders in many developed economies, President Joe Biden will offer consumer incentives to encourage uptake of the technology. The nation’s entire government vehicle fleet will also transition to electric vehicles made in the US.
It begs the question: when will Australian governments wake up and support the electric vehicle revolution?
Overseas, electric vehicle uptake has been boosted by consumer incentives such as tax exemptions, toll road discounts, rebates on charging stations and subsidies to reduce upfront purchase costs.
And past advice to government has stated financial incentives are the best way to get more electric vehicles on the road.
But government backbenchers, including Liberal MP Craig Kelly, have previously warned against any subsidies to make electric cars cost-competitive against traditional cars.
Releasing the government’s Future Fuels Strategy discussion paper on Friday, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said subsidies for electric vehicles did not represent good value for money.
(As argued here, the claim is flawed because it ignores the international emissions produced by imported vehicle fuel).
The Morrison government instead plans to encourage business fleets to transition to electric vehicles, saying businesses accounted for around 40% of new light vehicle sales in 2020.
The government has also failed to implement fuel efficiency standards, despite in 2015 establishing a ministerial forum to do so.
The approach contrasts starkly with that taken by the Biden administration.
Cars, buses and trucks are the
largest source of emissions in the US. To tackle this, Biden has proposed to:
electrify the government’s 650,000-strong fleet
establish ambitious fuel economy standards
provide incentives for US manufacturers to build electric vehicles and parts
make all new US-built buses zero-emissions by 2030, and electrify the nation’s 500,000 school buses
invest $US5 billion into battery research to further reduce electric vehicle prices
ensure every American city with 100,000 or more residents has high-quality, zero-emissions public transport options.
And by committing to carbon-free electricity generation by 2035, the Biden administration is also ensuring renewable energy will power this electric fleet.
This combined support for electric vehicles and renewable energy is crucial if the US is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
US companies are getting on board to avoid missing out on the electric vehicle revolution.
The day after Biden announced his fleet transition plan, General Motors (GM) – the largest US vehicle manufacturer and a major employer – announced it would stop selling fossil fuel vehicles by 2035 and be carbon-neutral by 2040.
This aligns with plans by the US states of California and Massachusetts to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2035.
GM is serious about the transition, committing $US27 billion and planning at least 30 new electric vehicle models by 2025. And on Friday, the Ford Motor Company said it would double its investment in vehicle electrification to $US22 billion.
Using government fleets to accelerate the electric vehicle transition is smart and strategic, because it:
allows consumers to see the technology in use
creates market certainty
encourages private fleets to transition
enables the development of a future second-hand electric vehicle market, once fleet vehicles are replaced.
Biden’s fleet plan includes a clear target, ensuring it stimulates the economy and supports his broader goal to create one million new US automotive jobs. Prioritising local manufacturing of vehicles, batteries and other components is key to maximising the benefits of his electric vehicle revolution.
On face value, the Morrison government’s business fleet plan has merit. But unlike the US approach, it does not involve a clear target and funding allocated to the initiative is relatively meagre.
So it’s unlikely to make much difference or put Australia on par with its international peers.
Compounding the absence of consumer incentives to encourage uptake in Australia, some states are mulling taxing electric vehicles before the market has been established.
Our research shows this could not only delay electric vehicle uptake, but jeopardise Australia’s chances of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Australia is already a world leader in building fast-charging hardware, and manufactures electric buses and trucks. We could also lead the global electric vehicle supply chain, due to our significant reserves of lithium, copper and nickel.
Despite these opportunities, the continuing lack of national leadership means the country is missing out on many economic benefits the electric vehicle revolution can bring.
Australia should adopt a Biden-inspired electric vehicle agenda. Without it, we will miss our climate targets, and the opportunity for thousands of new jobs.
Jake Whitehead, Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellow & Tritum E-Mobility Fellow, The University of Queensland; Dia Adhikari Smith, E-Mobility Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Thara Philip, E-Mobility Doctoral Researcher, The University of Queensland
Replacing cars that run on fossil fuels with electric cars will be important in meeting climate goals – road transport produces more than 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But there are obstacles to wider uptake, particularly in Australia.
Too much of the debate about these vehicles revolves around abstract, technical calculations and assumptions about cost and benefit. Tariffs, taxes and incentives are important in shaping decisions, but the user experience is often overlooked. To better understand this we took a Tesla on a road trip from Sydney through some regional towns in New South Wales.
We soon found “range anxiety” is real. That’s the worry that the battery will run out of power before reaching the destination or a charging point. It’s often cited as the most important reason for reluctance to buy an electric vehicle.
Even as prices come down and hire and share options become more widespread, range anxiety about electric vehicles is hindering their wider uptake. We found it can largely be overcome through a range of strategies readily available now.
The first is simply to accumulate driving experience with a particular vehicle. Teslas promise a far simpler machine with fewer moving parts, but also incredibly sophisticated sensing and computational technology to help control your trip. This means you need to get a feel for the algorithms that calculate route and range.
These algorithms are black boxes – their calculations are invisible to users, only appearing as outputs like range calculations. On our trip, range forecasts were surprisingly inaccurate for crossing the Great Dividing Range, for example.
Second, we found it very helpful to connect with other electric vehicle users and share experiences of driving. Just like any new technology, forming a community of users is a good way to gain an understanding of the vehicle’s uses and limits. Owner associations and lively online groups such as Electric Vehicles for Australia make finding fellow enthusiasts easy.
This connection can also help with the third strategy. It involves developing an understanding of how companies like Tesla control their vehicles and issue “over the air” software updates. If these specify different parameters for acceptable battery charge, that can change the vehicle’s range.
Public investment in charging infrastructure could – and should – further ease range anxiety. Better planning and co-ordination are needed, too, to build on networks like the NRMA’s regional network of 50 kilowatt chargers.
Understanding what is involved for users is also crucial to the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Their sustainability isn’t just a function of taxes and technologies. The practices of people driving electric cars matter too.
You learn with experience what efficient driving requires of you. You can also work out how your charging patterns could match solar generation at home, for those lucky enough to have rooftop PV panels.
These vehicles can deliver significant environmental benefits. They produce zero tailpipe emissions, reducing both local air pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions.
Regenerative braking also reduces brake particulate emissions. That’s because the electric motor operating in reverse can slow the car while recharging its battery.
Switching from internal combustion to electric cars won’t address all the problems of our current car-based system. Some, such as road congestion, could get worse.
Road traffic will still cause deaths and injuries. Electric vehicles will still produce deadly PM2.5 particulates as long as they use conventional brakes and tyres. Many models do, providing similar driving experiences to combustion vehicles.
Congestion and the costs of providing and maintaining roads, parking and associated infrastructure will still create enormous social, economic and environmental burdens. Electric vehicles need to be part of a much wider transformation – especially in urban areas where other transport options are available.
Longer distances and lower densities make walking, cycling and public transport more challenging in rural and regional areas. Better support for electric vehicles, particularly chargers, could make a significant difference here.
These vehicles can help rural and regional areas in other ways too. Many holiday towns rely on tourist incomes but their electricity supply is at the mercy of long thin power lines that run through bushland. Electric vehicles could potentially help with this problem: when parked they can feed power back into the grid.
Regional economic planning that supports visits by electric vehicle drivers can reduce the need to invest in energy generation or battery systems. There are huge opportunities to integrate electricity planning and the (re)building of bushfire-affected towns, which a trial in Mallacoota will explore.
Pooled together, the batteries of an all-electric national vehicle fleet could provide power equivalent to that of five Snowy 2.0s. This would boost energy security and flexibility.
In Australia, the policy landscape is more [contested]. It’s time we caught up here.
We can start by recognising the importance of governments in the progress made internationally. Examples include the US$465 million US government loan to Tesla in 2009 to develop the landmark Model S, and Norway’s co-ordinated national approach to properly accounting for the environmental and social costs of cars. Norway’s success is now the focus of a laugh-out-loud Superbowl ad from GM, a company that in the past killed the electric car.
We need to understand users and have democratic debates about planning for charging infrastructure before we can sit back and enjoy the ride.
Amelia Thorpe, Associate Professor in Law, UNSW; Declan Kuch, Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, and Sophie Adams, Research Fellow, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW