Australia’s political debate was recently given a high-voltage shock. The Morrison Liberal-National government was preparing to call an election. Bill Shorten was diligently keeping his mouth shut, knowing that Labor was on autopilot to a likely victory.
Then, in his budget reply speech, Bill mentioned electric cars. Of all the topics he raised, that one seems to spark the most discourse.
On that day, as I read the speech, I was sitting in an electric car, or “EV”, doing 120km/h on a Florida freeway. Like Bill, the car was quite literally on autopilot, driving itself entirely. My partner Jessica sat in the drivers seat, monitoring the car’s performance as it watched for humans doing crazy human things.
This particular freeway connects Trump Country and… the rest. Florida is a purple state, with gun-toting, gas-guzzling gated communities a short drive away from urbane, medium density developments whose residents commute by train.
Out here, I have experienced first-hand the pain of families and friends being torn apart by the hysterical partisanship Trump cultivates. Healing these rifts is tough. Dinner conversations are delicate affairs, where third rails (immigration, healthcare, trade, and more) must be carefully avoided.
The EV debate in Australia has surprised me, because the tone feels like that which I’ve found in Trumpland. Rather than engaging with the science and economics of EVs, the debate appears to be morphing into a cultural one. Internal combustion engines (ICE) represent some sort of honourable status quo. EVs represent a fad, an “other”, at worst a conspiracy designed to screw the unwary out of their excellent ICEs.
As the keeper of a V8 BMW, which I adore, and as someone who has lived with EVs on the East & West coasts of the United States, I can assure you that the conspiracy is operating in reverse.
EVs are, pound for pound, faster, safer, less complicated, more comfortable, cheaper to run, capable of carrying more cargo, and handle more nimbly than ICE cars. Anyone that tells you otherwise has not spent any significant time in a Tesla Model 3. Even the best German ICE engineering cannot overcome the fundamental design advantages of removing a huge, heavy lump of finely-tuned moving parts from the vehicle.
Regardless of whether they are good for the environment, EVs are simply better cars. Yet even when fed with electricity generated by the dirtiest coal power stations, they are vastly less carbon-intensive per unit of distance travelled.
Their only drawback, their sole weakness, is the price of their lithium ion batteries. Yet the price of these batteries is steadily falling, and the point at which they become cheaper than relatively immensely complicated ICE’s is inevitable.
Charging infrastructure is ubiquitous – Even a standard 110v plug in the US can comfortably deliver 7km/h of range at 10 amps, more than enough to cover a light ICE duty cycle. Installation of relatively inexpensive three phase wall chargers can deliver ~35km/h at home. The Tesla Supercharger network delivers an astonishing 800km/h and up, and they are everywhere, even in Australia. No matter where you charge, the price per km travel of electricity is far below that of petroleum.
I am fortunate to be a digital nomad, criss-crossing the world and observing a new city almost every week. Compared to what I see on my travels, the dialogue in Australia around energy is like something out of the Stone Age. Out here, in the rest of the world, the pace of change is astonishing. There is not a single petrol powered motorcycle left on Beijing’s streets. EVs are now the most popular premium vehicle in the United States and European Union. Car parks are full of chargers, while freeways are peppered with EVs driving themselves.
Meanwhile in Australia, smug News Corp pundits are making idiotic quips about EVs shortfalls from… the 90s.
If Bill Shorten wants to shave a few percentage points off my disposable income while he articulates a semi-coherent vision for jolting Australia out of its coal-induced stupor then yes, I’m ok with that. The rest of the world is moving on, at EV speed. Meanwhile, the Liberal-National coalition is running Facebook scare-campaigns promoting the primacy of the ICE.
We are fortunate in Australia to have two broadly competent major parties, who both have a history of “not screwing it up too badly” over the past 40 years. When one of them is running such an appalling backward looking campaign, it is time to give the other one a chance.