Lead the charge EV Vehicles on the way

Energy Matters0


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Electric cars

Electric cars

  • Electric cars
  • Electric cars

All-electric plug-in cars are a different breed to petrol-electric hybrids, which use electric motors to supplement a petrol engine and don’t require a power outlet.

All-electric cars run entirely on batteries and hence need to recharge regularly.

Electric cars aren’t new – they’ve been around in some form for almost as long as motor vehicles have been on the road. But recent improvements in battery technology have made them a more realistic alternative to their petrol-engined cousins.

There are still big question marks over the charging infrastructure, long-term battery life, safety and resale value of electric vehicles.

But none of this matters to Hobbs; she’s happy to have adopted EVs early and faces those challenges head on.

“I’ve been rabbiting on about the environment for 10 years,” she says. “When my old car started getting the shakes I thought, ‘I don’t want to commit to buying petrol for another 10 years.’ So I’ve put my money where my mouth is.”

She admits she considered getting rid of a car altogether and joining a car-sharing program but decided to commit to the Blade and join the electric-car revolution.

“For me, part of the reason I’m doing this is because, with my work, I get to talk about it,” she says. “It’s normalising the idea of electric cars.”

It came at a price, however – $48,000 to be exact – substantially more than a Hyundai Getz with a petrol engine.

But she says it’s easy to justify that extra expenditure.

“For me $48,000 is a shitload of money to spend on a car,” she says. “But I’m paying for my fuel upfront with the battery pack. So if I keep it for 10 years like my last car, that’s $5000 a year. In 10 years I’ll probably just give it to my nephew.”

For critics of electric cars, Hobbs has switched her energy provider to get “green” energy instead of relying on coal-fired power.

“If you’re going to use coal fire you’re doing no good, you just have a feel-good car,” she says.

“[Switching to green energy] takes you from three tonnes of CO2 per year to none.”

She’s not the only Australian driver ditching petrol power for electricity. The managing director of Adelaide-based internet service provider Internode, Simon Hackett, not only has a Blade parked in his garage but also just took delivery of the first right-hand drive Tesla Roadster in Australia.

To call Hackett a passionate believer in electric vehicles is an understatement. He has been a fan ever since he drove the GM EV1 in the mid-1990s while working in the US.

He ordered a left-hand-drive Tesla in 2006 but had to wait until 2008 for it to arrive. Last year he set a world record by driving the Roadster more than 500 kilometres on a single charge during the Global Green Challenge.

Hackett bought the Blade Electron as his daily driver because he couldn’t register his left-hand-drive Tesla for road use. But with the new Tesla able to be driven on the road, it will replace the Blade as his daily commuter car.

It may have cost Hackett more than $250,000 but as far as he’s concerned, it’s better than buying a traditional sports car such as a Porsche or Ferrari.

“People say, ‘How can it be a sports car if it doesn’t go vroom vroom?’ You get used to it really quickly,” he says.

Home on the range

The first mass-market electric car into Australia, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, has an official range of 100 kilometres to 160 kilometres before it needs a full recharge (the Hyundai Getz-based Blade claims 100 kilometres).

The challenge for Mitsubishi and its fellow car makers is to convince consumers that 160 kilometres is enough for them to live with.

The Drive team logged its driving habits for a week and found that all of us could comfortably use an electric car with a range of 100 kilometres each day.

But we found on the weekends that range might not be enough to satisfy us all.

Factors such as the weather, driving style and use of the heater and airconditioning all have an impact on the range; just like the fuel consumption in a traditional petrol- or diesel-powered car.

But, unlike a traditional car, topping up the battery of an electric car isn’t as simple as ducking into your local service station. Charging an electric car can take up to eight hours and requires a special power outlet.

Both Hobbs and Hackett believe “range anxiety” won’t be an issue for most people, providing they live close to their work.

“For the first few days I was shitting myself,” Hobbs admits. “But I realised I really never drive more than 100 kilometres.”

She does also admit to having a back-up plan.

“I carry a 30-metre extension cord,” she says. “That gives me a bit of confidence.” Hackett believes it is only a matter of time before electric cars boast a range to match a petrol car. He says he can get more than 300 kilometres from his Tesla regularly and the company’s next variant, the Model S, will claim a range of more than 480 kilometres.

“There’s this tendency with people to focus on what happens if you run out of electricity. Well, the same thing that happens if you run out of petrol: your car stops,” he says. “But what people need to realise is that range, of 100 kilometres or 300 kilometres, is available every day.”

Give it a plug

Infrastructure for electric cars is very much a case of the chicken and the egg. Car companies have the cars but there isn’t any significant infrastructure in place yet. Not surprisingly, no one is interested in installing expensive public charging points for a handful of cars.

Unlike the Blade, some electric cars can’t be charged using a regular household outlet – they require a 15-amp plug, the same type used for large airconditioning units.

You can get one installed in your garage or office car park for a few hundred dollars but there are a growing number of operators selling specialised charging points.

ChargePoint Australia is one of the first companies to install a commercially operated roadside outlet, in conjunction with car-sharing company GoGet.

The outlet, in inner-city Glebe, is not available for public use, though; only members of GoGet are able to charge the company’s converted Toyota Prius EV.

The joint managing director of ChargePoint, Luke Grana, says the rollout of infrastructure will be a gradual process that will be tied to the amount of EVs on the roads.

“We really see it working with the early adopters like local councils, state governments and fleets,” he says. “We won’t be rolling out a network until 2013 and we’ll be growing with the market.”

He believes the most likely scenario will see shopping centres and parking stations emerge as the power provider for electric cars, potentially replacing petrol stations.

In theory, drivers will be able to take their EV to the shops, plug in while they doing their shopping and come back to a fully recharged car.

The first signs of this transition have emerged.

Special parking spaces with power outlets are beginning to pop up around major cities but they are few and far between. So far, shopping centres in Hornsby, Dural and Blacktown have become some of the first to offer electric-car drivers a place to recharge while shopping.

“I think it really needs to be led by the car-consumer marketplace,” a spokeswoman for Westfield, Julia Clarke, says.

There are exceptions, though. A new multi-storey structure in downtown Perth has 12 parking spots hard-wired for charging.

To ensure the electricity is sustainable, it’s sourced from roof-mounted solar panels.

The car park is overseen by the director of business units for the City of Perth, Doug Forster. He says it will serve as a test ahead of further charging points being set up. The council owns 30 parking stations across the city.

Crucially for the rollout of infrastructure and EVs, federal and state governments have so far shown little tangible support for electric cars. Overseas, governments have offered free parking, access to transit lanes or cash incentives to support early adopters of EVs.

The all-important question, however, is: will car fans miss the vroom of a petrol engine?

“I thought I would but I don’t,” Hackett says. “I’ve got an old Ferrari, a 1985 308, that’s a real work of art. But I can’t get motivated to drive it. Once you drive an electric car, you realise you are in a generational-changing vehicle. And I don’t miss the generation I’m leaving.”

Electric cars on the way

City cars, hatchbacks, sedans and even supercars; there is an electric car suited to almost every need under development somewhere in the world.

  • Mitsubishi i-MiEV
  • NissanLEAF
  • TeslaRoadster
  • Tesla ModelS
  • SmartED
  • MiniE
  • Holden/ChevroletVolt
  • Renault Fluence Z.E.
  • VolvoC30Plug-In Hybrid
  • Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid
  • VolkswagenEup!
  • BMWMegacity
  • CitroenC-ZERO
  • Peugeot iOn
  • Ford Focus BEV
  • Audi e-tron
  • Mercedes-BenzSLSE-Cell