Among Australian economists, few public servants are as revered as Roland Wilson, who ran the Treasury, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Labour, serving both sides of politics.
Yet Wilson wasn’t just a great public servant, he was also one of Canberra’s first electric vehicle owners. As Tim the Yowie Man reported on these pages, Wilson built his own three-wheeled electric vehicle using parts collected from junk shops and rubbish tips. During the 1940s, he drove it from his home in Forrest to his office in the Parliamentary Triangle. The car had a top speed of 20 km/h and a range of up to 64 km. Its twelve batteries charged overnight at Wilson’s home.
Earlier this year, I became one of the first Canberra politicians to switch to an electric vehicle, swapping my Honda Jazz for a Tesla 3. I’ve never been much of a car nut, but the Tesla is a joy to drive. It’s got enough range to get to Sydney, enough space to hold a family of five, and more than enough zip when you put your foot down. There’s also something fun about a car with automatic door locks, headlights and windscreen wipers. Where Roland Wilson had to sacrifice performance for environmentalism, today’s drivers can have both.
Yet while Teslas are fun, they’re not cheap. And that goes for other electric vehicles too. As Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has pointed out, consumers in the United Kingdom can choose from 26 low-emission vehicles under A$60,000. In Australia, that number is only eight. That’s a key reason why electric vehicles comprise 15 per cent of UK car sales, compared with just 2 per cent of Australian new car sales. While Teslas currently account for around 60 per cent of new Australian electric vehicles, they may soon be outsold by cheaper alternatives.
To accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles, the Australian Government has moved a bill in parliament that will cut the taxes on new cars. At a time when many families are feeling the squeeze of rising prices, cheaper vehicles will help with cost of living. Transitioning to an electric vehicle also reduces running costs. For every 10 kilometres driven, an electric car costs about $1 less to run than a petrol vehicle.
Electric vehicles also represent a major vital environmental reform. Reducing tailpipe emissions will help Australia transition towards net zero emissions by 2050. Cutting pollution also improves air quality. According to one estimate, vehicle emissions cost 1,500 lives a year, more people than die in traffic accidents. When we think about the benefits of electrifying the nation’s car fleet, we shouldn’t just think about climate change – we should also think about the benefits for a child with asthma who lives near a busy road.
Naturally, we don’t just need to bring down the price of electric vehicles. The Australian Government is establishing a national electric vehicle charging network, with fast charging stations at an average interval of 150 kilometres on major roads. The government is exploring options for an Australian fuel efficiency standard, reflecting the fact that every other advanced country either has or is developing such standards. And the government is aiming for three-quarters of vehicles in the Commonwealth fleet to be low or zero emissions by 2025.
Globally, Australia has some catching up to do. According to the Electric Vehicle Council, electric vehicles account for 72 per cent of new car sales in Norway, 25 per cent in Germany, 16 per cent in China, and 6 per cent in New Zealand. Globally, the average is 9 per cent – nearly five times higher than the Australian figure of 2 per cent.
As with solar panels, change will be driven by both government incentives and technological improvements. In the United States, many drivers are excited by the Ford Lightning truck, which is not only zippier than the popular Ford F-150, but also serves as a portable battery, allowing tradespeople to plug in their power tools while on the job. If Tesla’s Cybertruck and Roadster make it into production, they’ll be pretty remarkable vehicles too.
Across Australia, no state or territory is more enthusiastic about electric vehicles than the bush capital. Electric vehicles make up 5 per cent of new car sales in the ACT. Seventy years after Roland Wilson’s three-wheeler graced our streets, Canberrans are increasingly enjoying the benefits of electric vehicles. With 100 per cent renewable power generation, driving an electric vehicle in Canberra means zero carbon emissions.
No, electric vehicles won’t end the weekend. In fact, they make weekends a lot more fun.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner, and his website is andrewleigh.com.
This was first published by the Canberra Times on the 25th of September.