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Can Electric Cars go the Distance?

Australians appear skeptical of electric cars and hesitant to break up with their beloved and trusted petrol or diesel-fueled engines.

While electric cars are becoming more popular in China, Europe and the US, they have had a slow start in Australia, with only a couple of hundred sold in recent years.

An ABC crew has test driven a Tesla Model S electric car on Western Australia’s so-called Electric Highway from Perth to Augusta (315km) to try and answer the question: can they really go the distance on our vast regional roads without running out of juice?

The answer is yes. But, for now at least, it will cost you.

One of the key reasons for the unpopularity of electric cars in Australia is range anxiety — the fear that the car’s battery will go flat and you will be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no access to power.

If you are someone who regularly drives long distances, such as the 714km from Perth to Esperanza, this is a reasonable thing to worry about, but is it a legitimate fear?

Electric car owners and enthusiasts Rob and Robin Dean have done a 5,400km round trip from Perth to Broome in their Tesla Model S, and are now planning to drive around Australia.

“We went to Barn Hill station, 150km south of Broome, and when we got there we recharged from the power points used for caravans,” Mr Dean said. “It will just use the same amount of power as if there was a kettle on in a caravan.”

Lack of options for electric cars in Australia

There is only a handful of battery electric cars available in Australia at the moment — two of billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors models, plus options from Nissan, Mitsubishi and BMW.

At a third of the price of a Tesla, the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 have ranges of between 170km and 200km when they are fully charged, and are primarily designed for city commutes.

For consumers willing to spend upwards of $100,000, the Tesla models can go distances more like 350km and 613km when they are fully charged.

But at that price, for most people buying a Tesla would break the bank.

Owners of expensive and top-of-the-range electric cars argue that their initial investment will save them money in the long run because they will spend less on servicing, maintenance and fuel.

Mr Dean said his car had done 91,000km and he had voluntarily had it serviced once, just to check the steering. “It has just one replacement part — the battery pack.”

…”There’s no oil change, gearbox service or any of the things you have to do for a petrol car,” he said.

Are electric cars cheaper to run?

While on the road, stopping for about half an hour to use the recharging stations in towns across the south-west of WA, people repeated two questions: are electric cars cheaper to run, and are they more ecofriendly?

This is where we enter muddier waters. The quick answers to those questions is yes and yes.

But it is not really that simple.

Instead of re-fuelling at a petrol station bowser, electric car owners either recharge at home, use a recharging station on the side of the road — if they can find one — or plug in a three-phase power adapter and use a socket.

The cost of re-charging an electric car varies on several factors — what you are paying for electricity at home, whether you have solar panels on your house, whether you have a home battery pack, if the charging station is free or you pay a fee, or if you can rope someone in to let you recharge at their roadhouse or motel and negotiate payment.

For now, a lot of charging stations in Australia can be used for free.

However, the RAC-installed recharging stations on WA’s Electric Highway cost the user 45 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity, plus a $1 transaction charge.

Electric car blogger and advocate Leo Kerr, from the website My Electric Car, writes that it takes about 18 kilowatt hours to travel 100km, so it would cost about $4.50 in electricity charges to travel that distance if you were paying the average Australian price of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In comparison, Mr Kerr writes, the average petrol car in Australia uses 11.1 litres of fuel to travel 100km at a cost of $16.65.

Even in a very efficient diesel vehicle, it will cost $7.50 for 100km.

The cheapest option for electric car owners is recharging at home using the electricity from solar panels and stored by a home battery.

Unless you are recharging using a renewable energy source, the power electric car owners are using still comes from burning traditional fossil fuels which, in WA at least, is primarily coal.

Electric future of the automotive industry

Owners of electric cars say their cars are not the future, they are the past, because electric cars have been around since the mid-19th century.

The range of electric car options in Australia is set to grow next year with the expected release of the following in alphabetical order.

  • BMW i3/i3s
  • Hyundai IONIQ EV
  • Hyundai IONIQ PHEV
  • Hyundai Kona
  • Jaguar I-Pace
  • Kia Niro EV
  • Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Renault Zoe
  • Tesla Model S
  • Tesla Model X

The new electric cars are expected to be able to do longer distances and cost less.

But whether that will be enough to win over Australia’s petrol heads remains to be seen.

Mr Dean said Tesla Motors chief executive and co-founder Elon Musk was “shaming” automakers into making better and cheaper electric cars.

“He’s leading by example. He’s producing these cars to show it can be done and that there’s no reason other car companies can’t also make electric cars,” he said.

“He’s made all of Tesla’s patents open to all other car companies. If they want to use that technology, it’s there.

“It’s straightforward stuff that Musk is doing. He’s using the same basic principles Nikola Tesla used in the 1890s.”


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