Electric cars: coming soon to a country near you?

In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.

So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.

Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.

That raises the question of whether we could make a similar shift in Australia. The big barrier to complete replacement of internal combustion cars has been the prevalence of long distance driving, combined with the limited range and long recharge time for electrics. However, the latest Tesla models have reached a point wherean intercity drive (say Sydney to Brisbane, which is 950km) could be managed in a single day. The maximum electric range currently is around 500km (Tesla) and the best recharge gives 250km in 30 minutes. So, with a driving speed of 100km, and alternating 2.5 hours of driving with a 30 minute break, a long-distance trip is feasible. From a road safety viewpoint, compulsory recharging breaks would be a good thing. Of course, Teslas aren’t an affordable choice for most, but these technologies generally flow through to the mass market a few years after they appear in luxury brands.

If the government’s rhetoric about “Direct Action” meant anything, this would be the kind of policy option they would be pursuing. Of course, as with the equal marriage plebiscite, the whole point of Direct Action is as a cover for inaction. But when this lot are finally gone, Australia is going to be close to exhausting its carbon budget. Carbon pricing alone is unlikely to deliver change fast enough to reach our targets. A large scale initiative in developing infrastructure and forcing car importers to increase the share of electrics may be the only way to go.

65 thoughts on “Electric cars: coming soon to a country near you?

  1. While getting the figures for that last post, I notice that the Model X has a claimed 542 (how precise!) range. Which is really something. But costs $112k, which is something I would never countenance.

  2. @wilful

    At that price in the US – if it happens – it will sell for at least $70K in Australia, taking into account the exchange rate, shipping costs, GST, the 5% tariff, the luxury car tax, and the fact that cars in Australia are in general much more expensive than in the US.

  3. Paul, the base model X costs $80k in the US, $112k in Australia. This is one of the best indicators of final pricing, and suggests that a model 3 should be ~$55k.

  4. @Collin Street

    Look, to state the bleeding obvious, if an electric vehicle does not suit your needs, don’t buy one. In the future, with a proper price on carbon, you’ll pay for the privilege, and that is fine.

    We should make a world where rational choices lead to the outcomes we need. I hate the “morality” arguments. Just hit people in the hip pocket, and let them decide.

  5. @James Wimberley
    Nykvist’s battery learning curve. Note the very wide error ranges. This reflects both a lot of uncertainty, and the oligopolistic structure of the industry (inlike the competitive pv one). The details of Tesla’s contracts with Panasonic and GM@s with LG are closely guarded commercial secrets. They release just enough selective information to keep investors happy, plus hige clouds of PR smoke. BYD is its own batter supplier.
    Battery energy density chart.
    THis isn’t a professional literature survey, these are just to show I’m not making stuff up.

  6. In the scheme of things, how far electric cars can travel on on one charge is the least of our problems.

  7. FFS, no one here is “anti-renewables”. We’re mainly debating whether on present trends and policies EVs WILL replace fossil fuel powered cars, not whether they SHOULD. Separate the normative and positive please.

    And I remain sceptical that EVs will replace fossil fuelled vehicles for all major applications in the near future. Especially at the heavier end of the market. City runabouts, yes, trucks, not so much.

    For example, on those quoted ranges I’d lay odds there is a lot of fine print in those manufacturer’s claims. I’d like to see the ranges measured using the same cycles currently used for quoting fuel economy so we can compare apples with apples. Plus for long distance applications there is a big difference between a few minutes refilling a fuel tank and several hours recharging a huge battery pack.

    I guess I’m mindful of Robert Gordon’s dictum that “a new technology generally changes our lives more profoundly than we think. But it generally takes much longer to do so than we think”.

  8. # 37 Luke Elford

    Interesting figures. Any idea of the median? My uneducated guess suspects a non-nomal distribution with a few outliers doing a lot of driving due to work or housing location.

    I suspect that we often exaggerate the distances people travel on a normal day.

    A few years ago I looked up the commuting distances for Canadians from Statistics Canada. It worked out that roughly 65% of the population commuted less than 10km. A bicycle is more than sufficient for such a distance.

    # 41 Collin Street

    an incomplete solution is, in isolation, not a solution.

    Very true. I live in Canada and it is extremely difficult to drive to Melbourne or Brisbane.

  9. Private car owners are willing to pay a premium for the increased performance electric vehicles offer. Road freight companies aren’t. Or can’t and stay in business. But provided the cost of batteries continues to decline and other alternatives do not, then in the future electric vehicles will be used for long distance heavy road transport. This is simply because transport companies will use whatever method is the cheapest, taking into account operating costs, operating life, and capital utilization.

    Mining companies have already, to a large extent, switched from diesel only to diesel electric mining trucks due to lower fuel use and lower maintenance costs.

  10. It worked out that roughly 65% of the population commuted less than 10km. A bicycle is more than sufficient for such a distance.

    Pretty much, and for longer distances you can use public transport[1] and for heavier loads you can hire vehicles. The niche that “private electric car” fills is pretty damned narrow, and for most people I doubt it’d be worth the fixed costs. Hell, for a lot of people petrol cars are already not worth the hassle.

    The question is “how to move people and stuff”, not “how to replace the car carbon-negatively”.

    [1] You need public transport anyway, for the irreduceable population of undriveables; this means sunk cost, and because a lot of the cost is capital the actual marginal cost of decent public transport is fairly low.

  11. Very true. I live in Canada and it is extremely difficult to drive to Melbourne or Brisbane.

    Indeed, which is why we have airplanes. The words “in isolation” were written for a reason, you know.

  12. When otherwise identical petrol fueled car survive in the market if it had to take as long as the electric car to refuel?

  13. Imagine how well otherwise identical petrol fueled cars would sell if they came with free petrol but a few times a year that you’d know of in advance you’d have to wait an hour to get fuel.

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