Australia On The Verge Of An Electric Vehicle Revolution

Here in Australia, our beautiful, wide, brown land means that we love our big cars. Holden's Commodore and Ford's Falcon dominated the top of new vehicle sales lists for decades. They continue to be strong sellers, despite both brands shutting down in recent years. All of the five most popular cars in Australia are petrol-powered, but that looks set to change; you'll just have to give it a few years first.

The electric vehicle du jour in Australia has to be the Nissan Leaf. It's certainly been around for the longest, having launched in June 2012 -- the Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable Family Car initially had a claimed 160km range without using a drop of petrol, and the 2013 model refresh boosted that by around one-fifth.

The Leaf is an all-electric vehicle; there's no petrol engine, no oil pan, no fuel tank -- only a 24kWh battery pack and a front-mounted 80kW electric motor. The next-gen Leaf should also handle 300km on a single charge. The only problem is that you don't really see many Nissan Leafs driving around at the moment. No one seems to like them.

But prospective EV buyers can already also choose the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, with a 49kW motor and 16kWh battery pack, made for the CBDs of cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Australians aren't exactly rushing to embrace electric tech, but there's a middle ground. If you want to reassure yourself with a petrol-backup hybrid (no range anxiety!), you're spoilt for choice with the prototypical Toyota Prius, the Holden Volt, the Camry Hybrid, the Lexus RX400h -- and the list goes on.

But whether Australians like it or not, there are a lot more electric cars -- both hybrids and pure plug-in EVs -- on the horizon.

Next week, I'm test-driving an EV that is another step on the long road towards electric Nirvana. Mitsubishi's Outlander PHEV makes that crucial jump of not having a petrol motor connected to its drivetrain at any speed below 60km/h; unless you're on the highway or a toll road, the two-litre four-cylinder only serves to charge the soft-roader SUV's 12kWh battery -- good for around 50km of outright range. You can plug the PHEV into a wall outlet to refill its battery, so you could avoid using petrol entirely if you're commuting a short distance in it.

Why Go Electric?

The environmental benefits of electric vehicles cannot be overstated. Beyond the energy and industrial cost of the car's initial production (stamping panels, moulding interior plastics and so on), there's virtually no ongoing cost to the environment from running the vehicle compared to a petrol-powered, diesel-powered or LPG-powered car. There is the logistical concern of lithium battery production -- where do you source a huge amount of lithium and graphite without strip-mining and trashing the planet? -- but that's a different conversation.

Buy an electric car, and all your driving energy comes from the electrical grid. It's far easier to improve greenhouse gas emissions by replacing and refurbishing one or all of the 167 coal and gas power stations (above 1MW output) around Australia than by replacing and refurbishing the 20 million cars on the road. If you care about the environment, buying an electric car makes sense.

Tesla Motors' Affordable Electric Car Is Only A Year Away

The Outlander PHEV isn't a full, proper electric car, but it's 90 per cent of the way there. Tesla Motors is on the verge of launching its Model S in Australia -- at the moment, the 500km-rated luxury sedan is the gold standard for electric power. A massive 60kWh or 85kWh battery pack and rear-mounted electric motor propels the car from 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds, seating up to seven in comfort and safety without drinking a drop of petrol.

Tesla's entire business model is predicated on electric vehicle technology, so it's the company I automatically look to for a hint at what the future holds for electric cars. There's a soft-roader Tesla Model X on the way, and in another year or two, an incredibly promising mass-market Model E city car. If other manufacturers step up their game to challenge Tesla for market share, that can only be a good thing for buyers and the environment.

This gradual filtering of electric motors and high-capacity lithium batteries into mainstream consumer vehicles is even mirrored in their recent entry into the hardcore supercar market. The McLaren P1 uses a front-wheel-drive electric motor and centrally-mounted battery to provide what it calls "torque fill" at low revs, while the 3.8-litre V8's two massive turbochargers spool up.

BMW i8: Australian Hands-On

The Porsche 918 Spyder uses two electric motors -- one for the front wheels, and one to directly supplement the petrol-burning 4.6L naturally aspirated V8. The BMW i8 is the supercar most committed to electric power; you can drive it entirely on battery, and BMW claims its combined cycle fuel consumption as a mere 2.1L/100km. The LaFerrari is a little less refined, but it's still a significant step forward technologically.

All of these cars will (hopefully) make their way to Australian shores eventually. As will mainstream all-electric vehicles from Ford, Holden and every other carmaker worth its salt. If they want to keep making sales in a world where fuel efficiency and environmental impact is becoming increasingly important in buyers' minds, they'll have to.



    But whether Australians like it or not, there are a lot more electric cars — both hybrids and pure plug-in EVs — on the horizonGood..! :)

      Yeah. I'm particularly excited about plug-in hybrids. They mean that most of the time when you are doing short trips you can run on pure electric, but for long trips you can use liquid fuels (which means it is much more useful in Australia)

        Hybrids are the worst of both worlds when it comes to vehicle maintenance. Pure electric vehicles will soon have the range of a full tank of petrol, and public fast charging will get on the scene before that.

    How about a RAV EV?
    Not for us, unfortunately.
    How about a rear-wheel drive reasonably priced EV with nice styling?
    Not for us, either.

      I really wish we had the RAV4 EV, yeah.

      Model E with a rear-mounted motor (hey, Tesla already has those Model S blueprints handy)... I'm sold.

        think about a RAV 4 with an electric motor in each wheel and a small trailer with a generator recharging the battery.

    I think the range extended hybrids (electric motor drives the wheels, ICE acts as a generator only) are the best configuration for Australia at the moment. They provide the long range that is needed while giving good efficiency (as the ICE can run at the most efficient rpm to recharge the batteries). Frankly, I'm surprised that there haven't been more cars designed like this.

    What about price?

    I just did an online quote for a stock standard i-miev and it was $52,440. It looks like a pretty average looking 4 door hatchback.

    I could get a Mirage for $14,990 or a Lancer for $22,990.

    If I pick the Lancer over the i-miev I am saving $29,450. Let's say I spend $80 a week in fuel; I can fill it up for 7 years before I reach the price of the i-miev.

    The Nissan Leaf doesn't seem as bad, but it is still around $10k more than a Pulsar.

      And after 7 years you're likely up for a very hefty bill for a new battery bank. Until storage is dramatically improved electric cars are not a viable option for the average consumer.

      Using your figures 80x52x7=$29,120.00 add 14 oil changes, one timing belt, two sets of brake pads, one set of brake rotors, a set of spark plugs, one clutch and pressure plate or an automatic gearbox service. Say a total of $32,000.00 in running costs. This is assuming no loss of efficiency as the engine wears. A new Nissan Leaf at $40,000,00 looks good. If you then decide to keep the car longer say for another seven years a new EV battery would compare favorably against a replacement gearbox, engine, exhaust system which would probably be needed around the 300-400K mark when your running costs on fuel and servicing alone are adding up to $64,000.00.

      I have had no luck in finding a two year old Nissan Leaf for $20,000.00. So much for predictions of huge depreciation on electric cars.

        people seem to forget the price of power going up like 37% in 3 years and rising... and the fact that these things still need to be charged like petrol cars need petrol... they aren't free to run, they'll also need servicing.. You drop a cell in one of those batteries and you're gonna be crying. Anyone who knows prices of Lithium batteries for things such as RC hobbies could imagine how much these larger variants could cost (hint: not cheap) so yeah.. it's not the be all and end all... not even that green, fossil fuels still need to be burned to charge them and the process to make the batteries etc isn't green either. Not to mention less mileage and when your flat you have to wait for it to charge not just pump and go again.. These things are far from great for the average Australian yet but perhaps getting closer...

        Need hydrogen fuel cell advancements! :)

          Certainly there will need to be some pretty impressive advancements for hydrogen fuel cells to be useful as an alternative to batteries. The fuel cells need a catalyst to react at a useful speed and the best catalyst (to my knowledge) is platinum, which is really truly expensive.
          Also, hydrogen is terrible stuff to try to compress and as a result it is very difficult to carry much hydrogen. The range of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is less than a battery powered vehicle.
          Finally, you need to be able to produce hydrogen which (if you are producing from water) is a very energy intensive process anyway.

          An alternative to Lithium Ion batteries is Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. They are heavier for the same charge capacity (bad) but last longer (good) and are cheaper (also good).

          For Australia, it seems likely that plug-in hybrids will be the most suitable vehicles. They mean you can use the plug-in for daily charging which will cover most daily trips (for the typical driver, anyway) but can use liquid fuels for longer trips.

        I've driven the Nissan Leaf and I must admit I was pretty impressed. Unfortunately we are drifting off into fairy land as we begin to speak of a petrol driven Japanese hatchback making it to 400,000 kms let alone for someone to want to rebuild it and start again. It would have been crushed by then. I'm not saying it's impossible just highly unlikely.

      A motor costs $1500 and batteries cost $2000 take away the petrol motor and gearbox = $10000 we are being ripped off. In China you can buy an electric car for $5000. We are being groomed for the greatest price rip off in history.

    There is the logistical concern of lithium battery production — where do you source a huge amount of lithium and graphite without strip-mining and trashing the planet? — but that’s a different conversation.

    No, it's central to the argument. Without the lithium, these things will remain scarce.

    The next problem is recharging time. Until you can recharge one of these in the same time it takes to fill a petrol tank, they're useless for long trips.

      They're getting close. In the laboratory, they've charged up the batteries to 80 percent in 5 minutes.

      Last edited 08/05/14 4:16 pm

        Very different conditions. You take a 10A socket and cheap charge controller and you're looking at a very slow rate of charge. Batteries still aren't anywhere near a viable option for vehicles that are expected to cover long distances.

      Lithium is plentiful and unlike exhaust fumes it can be recycled. I have been driving an electric car for the last six years and have always found my "fuel tank" full every morning. Compared to an electric car a petrol car is wasteful for normal trips. My wifes petrol powered car is currently using $20.00 every two months in fuel. It would probably be cheaper to get rid of it and use a rental when needed.

        My wifes petrol powered car is currently using $20.00 every two months in fuel.
        Serious? $20? In 2 months? Either that's a typo, your wife virtually never drives, or you have the worlds most efficient petrol powered car.

      In 1975 oil was scarce but more was found. Lithium comes mostly from the ocean and is 100$ reclaimable from batteries. There will soon be too much of it.

      Fast forward 2 years, the Tesla Model 3 has been announced, supercharge stations are now available between Melbourne and Sydney and can charge your car in 30 mins, these are placed at nice towns, where you can have a break, Coffee or lunch. Tesla new mega battery factory is well under way and will produce more batteries in a year than the world made in 2014. You can have various charging options fitted to your house and you can even use your solar. Oil also trashes and strip mines the planet.

    In theory electric cars should be cheaper than a petrol car as so much is removed, they just need the battery packs to drop a bit further.
    I would like something like the Megapixel, series hybrid, 100 km rang on battery only but upto 900 km with the generator running, thus removing the fast charge requirement.

    Last edited 08/05/14 4:24 pm

      Generator requires fuel does it not? Kind of defeats the purpose.

        The idea generally is that you don't use the generator most of the time. The generator is to make the vehicle useful for long trips, whereas most trips are short enough to run entirely from the battery (which represents how most people actually use their vehicles).

        In my usage case it would run as a plugin electric except for maybe 4 days a year, the generator would give a nice saftey factor for the drives that were close to range as well.

        you only need a 300cc motor for a generator replacing a 1600cc motor. Battery increases efficiency and you don't use 1600cc motor going downhill.

    Electric cars are far from viable for the average driver. Battery technology is increasing at a tremendously slow rate. Furthermore the argument that electric engines are highly efficient is irrelevant as the source that supplies them is likely to be inefficient. I think the advantages of electric cars are fairly minimal, and in comparison to petrol cars they're basically a joke.

      I think you're talking nonsense. Battery technology is developing slowly, but is already quite sufficient to have electric cars running 100km or more, which more than covers most people's daily commute. The fact that electric engines are highly efficient matters, because with electricity you can upgrade the power generation at a single location and that improves the effective efficiency of electric cars across the board. In contrast, if someone managed to squeeze an extra 10% efficiency out of an internal combustion engine then all the internal combustion engines would need to be replaced to take advantage of that.

      There are advantages of petrol cars, and advantages of electric cars. Whether you consider the advantages of one over the other depends on your priorities.
      I think major advantages of electric cars are:
      1. You don't get pollution aggregation in cities
      2. You can switch to cleaner power generation and thus reduce pollution without needing to modify the individual vehicles
      3. You can recycle the rarer minerals in the batteries. Try recycling your exhaust.
      4. They don't waste energy when idle. If you're sitting at traffic lights you're not spinning a large chunk of metal at well below the optimal running RPMs

      What do you consider to be the average driver?

      It's pointless to speculate about viability without specifying the conditions.
      Until recently I used to work 10km from home. So for 80% of my driving, even something as tiny as a Nissan Leaf would be sufficient.

      Personally I look for a lot more in a car than just getting me from A to B cheaply. But that's why a an electric hybrid is much more interesting. I can get the same range and power as a petrol car but won't need to use petrol sitting in traffic.
      Some day in the not too distant future, workplaces will have plug in stations at car parks and then you can drive 40km (like I do now) to work and home on batteries alone.

        and shopping centres offering free recharge for shoppers on tuesday

    There is the logistical concern of lithium battery production — where do you source a huge amount of lithium and graphite without strip-mining and trashing the planet? — but that’s a different conversation.

    Actually that SHOULD be a part of THIS conversation as you are talking about the environmental benefits of electric cars, right?

    At the rate of how electricity prices have increased over the past couple of years, Im not convinced that Electric cars will be a cheaper way to travel compared to petrol, unless they are able to generate and store energy generated from starting/stopping etc as some other cars have done which may help a we bit, or if they were fitted with solar panels at the top (it baffles me that this is not already being done though).

      The return from solar panels being fitted on cars is pretty low. Look at the cars in the solar car challenges (which are done in conditions which will provide good solar power) and you'll see what I mean.
      The difference is cost between electricity and petrol is still pretty high, even with the electricity prices increasing. The other thing is that because you can produce electricity quite cleanly (i.e. large solar and wind farms can exist) then electric cars can overall produce significantly less pollution.
      I think many electric cars use regenerative braking (but I'm not 100% sure. The Telsa does, the Prius does, the Nissan Leaf does, Mistubishi does, but others I couldn't say).

      The issues associated with production and mining of lithium and graphite are important, but it is worth keeping in mind that (1) we have to compare them to oil mining and production and (2) they can be recycles, which oil and gas can't be.

      They are good questions to be asking, though.

    Does anyone know how a petrol generated recharge compares in fuel efficiency over a straight petrol engine? There seems to be a lot less moving parts to loose energy over and going sans gearbox would probably also help.

      I don't know. The best I could find (which is pretty different) is that the Prius on highway driving gets ~5L/100km. Because highway driving is basically 100% dependant on the petrol generated power, then that makes it fairly efficient.
      In theory, the petrol generation should be a lot more efficient than driving the engine with petrol because you can keep the generator motor at optimal RPMs whereas if you're driving the wheels you have to vary the engine speed. Converting rotation to electricity is very efficient, so you will not see a lot of energy loss between driving wheels and driving a generator. Similarly, electric motors are very efficient so you don't get a lot of loss there either.

    I've had my LEAF for almost 18months. 35,000kms. Yeah it cost $40k but compared to my last car that cost $30k I haven't had to pay around $5k in petrol costs in that time. So by year 4 the petrol savings are paying for the car.

    Add that to charging from my solar panels and well you do the maths. I know where I prefer my cash to be.

    Many people think they need long range electric cars but the LEAF has so far filled my driving needs of a regular suburbanite commuting for work and any weekend outings. Sure a little more range on the gauge may make you feel good but if your not ever using it why make the car cost more.

    This is where workplace charging and destination charging improve the usability on an EV dramatically. 8hrs of work is more than enough to fill an empty battery. I only use about 45% a day for my driving so a 'full charge' only takes around 3hrs because the battery is hardly ever fully depleted.

    When the petrol gauge is flashing it's a mystery as to how far you can go before stalling. When my battery gauge flashes (twice in 18 months) it's displayed driving distance is fairly accurate of how far I have left to go.

      well you do the maths.
      How much did the solar panels and installation cost? Is it supplying 100% of all power requirement for your home and car?

      Solar powered charge grids for cars during the work-day would be ideal. A large portion of the population work during the hours that the solar cells would be most efficient. Would be a great perk for the company to offer.

        Remember how Cobb &Co solved their mileage problems by changing horses every10 miles?
        I know a pare set of in and out batteries would cost alot, but if you could afford to have spare charged batteries available at a place to which you habitually travel your problem is halved!
        Maybe service stations could offer recharged batteries with a swap over cost for the motorist.

    I have more than enough PV at home to support an electric car. Many of the 2010 I-Miev's are now coming off lease and can be had for a fraction of new price...

      Yet to see one cheaper than any ICE car of same year and allowing for battery life

    By on the verge you mean, in the next 30 years maybe :)

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