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Saturday, 4 May 2019

Another post on electric vehicles

Had a couple of convos on Twitter about EVs again. The same kinds of arguments, the same lack of rigour. One of the exchanges ended with an unexpected piece of wisdom. I had been talking the guy over the previous day or so, and he finally said, “Finally things that neither of us could imagine will drive change at a rate that neither of us could imagine, because that’s how progress works. Talk to you in ten years.” It had been a gruelling exchange. One person listening to the conversation had just taken himself off the thread, saying, “You guys have been going for nearly 24 hours now. You can drop me from the thread. :)”

While my interlocutor’s insight might be accurate at first glance, however, it doesn’t change the reality in the car market today, or do much to change the state of the art in the runup to 2025, which is the date Labor attached to its proposed emissions intensity target (see my earlier post, put up on 11 April, for more details on this).

People who are in favour of EVs ignore the facts and just want everyone to merrily "get on-board", but the problem is that the wider community isn't interested in the products they want them to buy. If Labor wins the election on the 18th and makes its EV policy into law, then people might decide that it's worthwhile buying a car that only gets power from an electrical outlet. They might not, on the other hand. It's not at all clear at the moment what the government will do in the latter case. How will they encourage people to buy pure-electric plug-in EVs? Who will they punish if the emissions target is not reached in time? There are so many imponderables. On social media however it's all, "Hey-ho! Aren't EVs just wonderful."

Since my first EV post the exchange referred to above was the longest conversation that I had had about EVs. I had added the link to that post in a few of the tweets I put out. But the conversation never really got anywhere, which is typical of Twitter. People generally aren’t amenable to argument, and tend to dig in and become more and more aggressive until they finally give up in frustration. Social media is not conducive to intelligent exchanges, which is why the final comment by my interlocutor in that thread was so unusual. But in the end it won’t make any difference. People will continue to ignore pure-electric plug-in EVs and they will continue to buy petrol powered cars with internal combustion engines, or else go for the compromise that is offered by hybrids. Plug-in pure-electric EVs have too many drawbacks at the moment for them to be an attractive option.

Many people point to other countries, such as the UK and Norway, and flag moves in those places to promote the use of EVs. The problem with that tactic is that Australia is a completely different kind of country to either of those. Norway has a land mass of 385,000 square kms and a population of 5.2 million. The UK has a land mass of 242,000 square km and a population of 66 million. These are tiny countries. Australia’s land mass is 7.6 million square km and it has a population of 25 million. Driving for four hours in Australia is nothing, relative to the distances between population centres. Places to recharge are scarcer and you have to stay on the road longer to reach your destination, compared to driving in either the UK or in Norway. I’ve seen a number of people compliment the governments of both countries but no-one ever considers how unique Australia is in terms of population density and sheer size.

It’s true that having emissions standards helps in general to lower emissions. Countries that have emissions standards in place do better than countries that do not have them. The US is in the process of diminishing the effectiveness of its emissions standards by watering them down. In the age of Trump this is hardly surprising. In Europe, vehicle manufacturers are penalised if emissions targets are not met, so there is an incentive for them to help consumers make the change to electric.

Getting back to Labor’s proposal to reduce the emissions intensity of the light vehicle fleet (which includes both new cars and exsiting cars) from 192g of CO2 per km to 105g of CO2 per km, it seems to me that just setting this target and doing nothing else will not be enough.

Some sort of financial incentive will have to be put in place in order to get people to change their buying habits and to switch from petrol-powered cars to plug-in EVs. Plug-in pure-electric EVs are more expensive to buy (though cheaper to run) and they have certain shortcomings associated with range and recharging speed (I covered these issues in my last post and subsequent conversations on social media have not made me revise my ideas about them). But Labor will not propose a carbon price before the election because to do so would be electoral poison. And they cannot propose putting a levy on petrol or increasing the price of petrol-powered cars for the same reason. Certain sectors of the media would crucify them and make them lose the election to the Coalition. At the moment, Labor is the front-runner in the contest, going by opinion polls and the results of wagering published by betting agencies, but the margin that separates the two is slim.

A more aggressive pursuit of its emissions goals by Labor might win favour with parts of the community but the broader community is more concerned about cost-of-living pressures, especially in an economy where wages have been flat for some years.

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