Conducting the business of Electric Vehicles

For nearly 20 years, Chris Elliott has been running a business importing vehicles from Japan.

It started as something of a hobby for Chris, a side business following his departure from the enormously successful Sandgate Road Wholesale Cars he co-founded in 1983 (and through which he sold an astonishing 28,000 cars). Over the past two decades, however, that hobby has grown to be a substantial concern and now incorporates three businesses related to the importation of vehicles sourced in Japan.

There’s Wheelchair Vehicle Sales, which imports wheelchair accessible vans; there’s Japan Imports, which offers compliance servicing for imported vehicles; and then there’s Just Buses & EVs, from which the public can purchase people movers and battery electric (BEV) and hybrid electric (HEV) vehicles.

The electric vehicle business is, not surprisingly, the newest, and representative of the direction of the automotive industry, especially overseas, and spreading his business’s wings to include electric vehicles makes Chris something of a pioneer. The BEV new car market is barely getting started here in Australia, so to take the leap into importing and offering used BEVs and HEVS for sale is both pretty brave and, one suspects, pretty shrewd. Why? Dealers who offer good quality, well-priced used cars play a major role in the automotive industry and while the public are yet to fully embrace BEVs and Australia is lagging behind much of the developed world in the electric vehicle uptake stakes, that surely won’t last for long.

For Chris, the spark that convinced him to start importing BEVs did not come about by design. Rather, a request from a customer got him thinking about the opportunity BEVs might offer. And that one job would lead him to become a fully fledged EV convert.

“About five years ago, a fellow approached me about importing a Mitsubishi MIEV van,” said Chris. “I actually told him I wasn’t interested but he pleaded with me to do it and said not to worry about the cost. So, I brought it in, got it complied, and once I had the compliance plates for that model, I thought I had better buy a few to see how they go here. They were slow to take off – the whole industry has been very slow to take off – but the market is there.”

That market will grow, that is all but certain, and in recent months the government has adjusted the Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicles (SEV) rules as the transition to the new Road Vehicle Standards Act continues. That adjustment has opened things up for importers.

“The old rules meant that if manufacturers brought a particular model to Australia, we weren’t allowed to import any variant of it at all,” said Chris. “However, that has been changed, and variants that are significantly different to models sold here are now allowed. That means we can bring in electric, hybrid, or high-performance variants of a model, assuming it isn’t already sold in Australia.

“There is a hybrid version of virtually everything in Japan and a quite a few BEV versions too, and the manufacturers just won’t bring everything they have into Australia. They’ll bring in some of the more popular models, but they’ll leave a lot of others. That does leave us quite a few options.

“And I think this is the government telling the new car industry that they want more hybrid and electric vehicles to come here. They are saying, in effect, that if they don’t bring them in then they’ll let us, the importers, bring them in. It really feels like the government is trying to help, and it is very encouraging.”

Importing his stock from Japan means Chris is bringing in some high-quality stuff. A quick tour of the BEVs and HEVs in stock reveal quality Nissan Leafs and vans at very appealing prices and tucked in amongst them a very nice 2014 Merc S400 hybrid and an equally nice 2013 Nissan Fuga (better known here as the Infinity Q70) hybrid. These too, look to be priced at a tasty level.

And the price is important. BEV and HEV buyers are, said Chris, very cost-conscious. The sticker price, running costs, maintenance costs, the price of battery replacement – these, along with the range of a BEV, are the most common questions asked by potential buyers.

“They ask about service costs but, of course, there really isn’t that much to service in an EV,” said Chris. “There’s no oil, no engine, no transmission stuff you see in a regular car. And you barely use up a set of brake pads because every time you touch the brake pedal then there’s the regenerative braking. So, all there is to think about are tyres, shock absorbers, the steering, maybe the air conditioning – there just aren’t the thousands of moving parts you see in a regular vehicle.

“Most people come in and talk about an electric vehicle being their ‘second car’, the ‘buzz-around-the-city’ car. That’s because of the perceived problem with range. But most people overestimate the amount of range they use or need and, really, very few people do more than 40 or 50km in a day. And that is why these cars, in the end, always become their ‘first car’, because they quickly discover that, for most of the time, electric vehicles have plenty of range for what they require and it’s the car they use all the time unless they have to do a drive of some real distance.”

The battery replacement question is an important one though. It would be painful indeed for a buyer to discover their recently purchased BEV has a battery that was down on performance and needed an expensive replacement.

“I believe a completely new battery for a Leaf is about $8000, but there are some developments here,” said Chris. “When a battery starts to fail, it is usually because one, two or three cells within it have deteriorated. In New Zealand, which has really embraced electric vehicles, they are beginning to work on being able to replace just those two or three cells with cells from a donor battery. Doing it that rehabilitates the battery at a cost that is just a fraction of a complete replacement. Once we get a few more cars and a supply of batteries, there are some very clever people that will do that here.

“However, for the vehicles we sell, customers can take out aftermarket warrant of up to five years, and that will pay out up to $5000 towards the cost of a new battery should that be required.

“It should be noted too that when the battery has degenerated to the point that it can no longer be used to power the car, it still has probably 13-14kWh capacity. That’s similar to batteries that are being used to power homes. So, that vehicle battery could be pulled from the car and used as a home supply. I can’t think of a better way to recycle a battery actually.”

While the BEV market is slowly picking up with the public, Chris can point to some interesting customers that prove businesses are seeing the value in using electric vehicles.

“We sold three MIEVs to an eco-resort in Tasmania that has grid power to their main administrative centre and 30 cabins dotted around that are all on battery power. They wanted to see if it was possible to recharge the MIEV and then use it to recharge the cabin batteries.

“They did develop that, and those cabins can be topped up straight from the vehicle. We’ve also supplied vehicles to Lord Howe Island too which is looking to get its power from renewable energy sources and is considering whether only electric vehicles should be used on the island. It is the future.”
That future certainly will incorporate a great many electrified vehicles, and though Australia may take its time in getting there, Chris has positioned his business to be able to take advantage of the public’s conversion to and acceptance of the technology.

“The BEV and hybrid side of the business is growing slowly,” he said. “It is still in the early days, but it will grow. Australians do still have this idea that they must have a car with a range of 500km and more, but they really don’t, and that attitude will change once they get in them and start trying them out. When we consider the changing rules regarding importing, I do believe the government is doing its bit and now it is up to the public to drive demand. The choice is there now. They just need to let us know what they want, and we’ll bring them in.”

Source: Motor Trader E-Magazine (March 2020)

11 March 2020