There was a time when battery-electric power was on the verge of becoming the dominant form of energy for automotive transportation. For a few years either side of 1900 it was quite the rage and, in the U.S., more than 30 per cent of vehicles on the road were electric. Companies such as Elwell-Parker, Argo, Baker, Woods, Pope-Waverley, and the wonderfully monikered Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, were building electric cars. Even Porsche’s first offering, the P1 of 1898, was electric. Battery power was so mainstream that in April 1899, the official land speed record was set at 65.8mph (105.8km/h) by Belgian Camille Jenatzy in the battery-powered Le Jamais Contente.
The electric vehicle (EV) reached this level of popularity for several reasons. At the time, road infrastructure was poor outside cities so short urban trips were the norm and, unlike petrol-powered cars, electric cars were quiet, clean, and did not require the sometimes-dangerous task of being hand-cranked to get going.
It did not last, of course, and by the 1920s electric cars were falling out of favour. Infrastructure was improving, the electric starter for petrol-powered cars was introduced in 1912, petrol as fuel was becoming widely available, and, perhaps most importantly, in 1908 Ford began using mass production techniques to introduce the affordable-to-everyone Model T (the company would churn out 15 million of them over the 19 years of the model’s production life). The internal combustion engine won the power race and the electric vehicle was consigned to the pages of history . . . almost.
By the 1980s, interest in electric vehicle technology began to return as oil crises erupted and a growing awareness of air pollution and climate science came to the fore. Governments across the world began to act, introducing legislation that compelled manufacturers to focus on developing cars that met new environmental and fuel economy standards.
By the 1990s, this had prompted serious investigation into EV technology and in 1996 General Motors launched the EV1, the first car from a major manufacturer to be designed from the ground up as an EV. It had a range of 100km, could reach 100km/h in 8 seconds and had a top speed of 130km/h. Pretty decent numbers.
Only available to lease, the EV1 was a big hit with those who had one but, promising as it was, the move to push on and mass produce such vehicles faltered. The EV1 program ended and, apparently, the cars were destroyed. Electrification was not completely abandoned – in 1997, Toyota introduced the Prius hybrid – but battery-powered fully electric cars seemed to be going nowhere.
Say what you like about Elon Musk – and he has plenty of fans and critics – there can be little doubt that his enthusiasm to support Tesla and push the electric vehicle idea set the entire automotive industry on its head. In just 15 years, his company went from being a small start-up to being the world’s most valuable car manufacturer.
Which brings us to today – a time when every manufacturer has electric vehicles on the drawing board or in production; a time when there are a multitude of start-up fully electric EV manufacturers around the world; a time when big players are creating EV business units of their own (see Hyundai and the recently established IONIQ business created for just this purpose); and, sadly, a time when sales of new cars are under significant pressure.
In Australia, sales of new cars have been on the slide for many months – long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The pandemic has made things worse, of course, and the revealed sales figures for August 2020 were, as expected, pretty grim with the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) VFACTS reporting that 60,986 sales were made during the month, down 28.8 per cent on August 2019.
In amongst the bad news, however, there was an interesting nugget of information – that the best-selling vehicle in the nation was the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.
Some 4,405 RAV4 Hybrid variants were sold, and this marks the first time a hybrid-powered version of any model has been the nation’s biggest seller.
On that fact alone, it could be argued Australia is finally embracing vehicle electrification, and while the RAV4 is a hybrid and not a fully electric vehicle, it is a start and a significant first step.
According to the recent Electric Vehicle Council’s (EVC) State of Electric Vehicles Report, 3,226 EVs (including plug-in hybrids) were sold in the first half of 2020.
That number is small (according to VFACTS, 575,906 vehicles have been sold in 2020 up to August 31) but on a par with last year and headed towards an annual total far more than the 2,216 EV sales recorded for all of 2018. But it’s what is happening behind the scenes that, together with the sign that the RAV4 hybrid sales figure represents, is as important as those growing numbers.
The EVC report says 56 per cent of Australians are now considering purchasing an electric car as their next vehicle; that there are 28 electric vehicle models available in Australia with more, and cheaper, models on the way; and that there are now 1,950 standard charging stations (a 16 per cent increase since July 2019) and 350 fast and ultra-fast charging stations (representing a 42 per cent increase since July 2019) installed across the country.
Other recent positive news includes the Australian government partnering with Origin Energy to help fund a smart-charging trial (smart charging allows for the control of EV charging in order to avoid negative impacts on the grid), and Australian company Envirostream is reportedly to start the recycling of spent EV batteries. It should not be forgotten either that Australia does have its own EV brand that is making strides. ACE-EV is assembling a range of fully electric models – a cargo van, a ute, and a four-seater city car –and has plans to build 15,000 vehicles in Australia by 2025. The Brisbane-based electric mobility solutions company EMoS also has an impressive and growing range of all-electric vehicles, for both personal and commercial use, that are designed for the urban environment.
It is true that Australia has a way to go in catching other countries in the uptake of electric cars. However, I would argue – and as the RAV4 Hybrid news would suggest – that we are beginning to turn the corner. It may be more than a century since electric cars challenged for the automotive industry’s top spot, but that day is getting closer.
15 September 2020