Feature

Electric Cars - Green Wheels

Tim Wallace evaluates the exciting new generation of fully electric vehicles gaining traction in the Australian market.

Electric vehicles can now give fossil-fuelled models a run for their money in driving range and running costs.

Credit: istock

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.

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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 pipedreams. 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.

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