Charge Of The Electric Car Brigade
By Sarah-Jane CollinsFebruary 15, 2012
We hate the smell of petrol fumes, and the cost of petrol even more. But when will it be truly feasible to switch to electric cars?
In 20 years the electric car will have outstripped the petrol car in much the same way as the mobile phone has overtaken the landline.
At least, that's the bold claim of electric-car services company Better Place, which is putting the final touches on the first stage of its Australian network, to be launched in Canberra later this year.
"These shifts always seem unlikely when you're before the front end of them," says Better Place Australia chief executive Evan Thornley, a former Victorian Labor MP.
He says that every major technological jump can be charted in a similar way, and the electric car will be no different. "If you look at all the projections that were made about mobile phone adoption as mobile phones were starting out, they underestimate what actually happened, and the same is true with digital cameras," he says.
In Australia, some of the momentum for reducing carbon emissions has been lost since 2009, when Thornley first made his prediction about the rapid take-up of electric cars. Still, Thornley doesn't believe the current political debate around climate change will stop the shift to electric. He trusts the hip-pocket nerve; people will be motivated by the savings they can make.
"Whatever people's views about climate change, I know that 91 per cent of Australians hate petrol. They hate the cost, they hate the volatility of the cost, they hate the smell of it," Thornley says. "They love their cars but they hate their petrol, and if the electric solution arrives and becomes cheaper than petrol I'm very confident that will drive mass adoption regardless of the politics - for want of a better word - around climate change."
Better Place was founded by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi in 2007. Agassi says he came up with the idea after being asked at a conference, "How would you create a no-oil economy?" Since launching the Better Place car network in Israel in 2008, with the support of the Israeli government and a partnership with Nissan and Renault, Better Place has received hundreds of millions of dollars in seed funding from investors around the world.
The company announced in October 2008 that it would be setting up an Australian arm, with headquarters in Melbourne and a plan to build the largest network of electric car-charging points and "switching stations" in the world.
Australia, of course, is a place where people drive both long and short distances regularly, and spend a large amount on petrol. The conditions seem perfect as a proving ground for the Better Place model.
In 2009, Agassi outlined his strategy in a TED talk, saying switching to electric cars was achievable and the "right moral decision" in the context of global warming. "We have to make it immediately," Agassi said then, rather dramatically comparing the shift to a zero-emissions economy to the end of slavery in Britain.
With networks in Israel, parts of Europe, Asia and the United States, and the introduction of a range of battery-switchable electric cars to the Australian market later this year, Thornley believes it is only a matter of time before Australians begin to see these vehicles as a viable alternative to the cars they drive now.
"Battery switchable" is the key. In Australia, Better Place already offers annual subscriptions - drivers pay to link into its charging network, at a cost of $25 a week. For that, you get a charge point at your home or office and all your renewable energy to charge your car - up to 15,000 kilometres a year. At the moment the only fully electric available in Australia, is the the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. But the i-MiEV does not have a switchable battery, and a run-down battery takes time to recharge. So it's less practical for long-haul trips, giving a petrol engine a distinct advantage.
Even with fast-charging stations, non-switchable battery electric cars take longer to refuel than petrol cars. Plugged into a home power point, the i-MiEV takes seven hours to charge.
Better Place says a car with a switchable battery, using the company's switching stations, would be back on the road in the same time (or less) than it currently takes to fill the tank.
Mark Whyte, key account manager for the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, says that the electric car will achieve mass-market share in the near future. "In the last 18 months there's been a massive shift in consciousness around electric vehicles," Whyte says. "I don't think [20 years] is overly optimistic at all," he says. "Mitsubishi believes that by 2020, 20 per cent of cars sold will be [electric]. I would think about half would be electric in the next eight to 10 years. I think it is coming a hell of a lot quicker than people have anticipated."
But he isn't sure that switchable batteries are the reason, nor whether manufacturers necessarily will be gravitating towards switchable battery technology - because the technology could change over the next 10 years or so. Who knows what any battery will be able to achieve as the technology advances?
The first of the new switchable-battery cars to reach Australia will be the Renault Fluence Z.E. (zero emission), manufactured in Turkey, imported fully built and expected to be on sale by the middle of this year, with more expected in 2013 and beyond. Thornley sees battery-switching as the way forward.
"It's all a bit below the radar so far, because our target has been to do all the preparatory work to roll the network out, and our plan has been to meet the time when the mass-market cars start to come on line from the manufacturers. That time happily is later this year, so we're about to get to the exciting end of it fairly quickly," he says.
Clearly, the key to making electric a viable alternative is to make it as convenient and cheap as a petrol car.
Better Place will administer and run a series of charging points - drivers will be able to access them at their own homes, as well as at public and private car parks and other locations where demand is high. The company also will roll out battery-switching stations that will for the most part be co-located with petrol stations or convenience stores, to allow drivers undertaking long trips to switch their battery and continue on their way.
Thornley says deals with some petrol companies and convenience retailers have already been done to co-locate the switching stations, though he won't divulge any details.
This is the way it will work: You buy a car, the company buys the batteries, and you sign up to the network; your annual membership fee gives you access to charge points and batteries when needed. Better Place has not released a price structure for the network.
"Australians spend AUD37 billion a year on petrol, and as people move from petrol to electric that is an absolutely enormous market that will be served by companies like ours," Thornley says.
"At Better Place we think we are the leading player but we expect and welcome competition. The more companies setting up charge networks the faster the transition from petrol to electric will occur."
In Canberra, the first city to get the full Better Place network, the company has partnered with energy provider ActewAGL to supply 100 per cent renewable energy to power the network, which means running the cars will be carbon neutral.
"People in Canberra are very environmentally conscious," says Dianne O'Hara, the general manager of business development and strategy for ActewAGL. "There's a lot of uptake of new technology here. People have comparatively comfortable incomes and there're a lot of two-car families. They travel the right sort of distances, so all of these indicators seem to suggest this will be successful here."
Thornley is hoping that Australian car manufacturers will begin to shift production away from petrol engines to the switchable-battery electric car market. He says he sees it as a potential salve for the ailing industry. And the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union agrees, though with qualification.
Dave Oliver, the union's national secretary, says the ability to adapt to new technology is "always the answer" in manufacturing. "Developing electric drivetrains and battery technology are potentially exciting opportunities that Australia should try to grasp with both hands."
Oliver cites the production of the Hybrid Camry in Melbourne, and the Holden Cruze as examples of innovation and investment by car companies and government in new technology. But he is less enthusiastic about fully electric cars as a solution.
"There is scope for fully electric vehicles to be part of that transformation program eventually, but technology which delivers lighter-weight vehicles and more fuel-efficient engines is more important than fully electric at this stage," he says.
"The Holden Cruze is a smaller car which began being made in Holden's Elizabeth [South Australia] plant last year … the new Falcon has a much more efficient engine… In each case, investment in technology is giving the industry a future," Oliver says. And EV Engineering, a consortium of manufacturers working with Better Place and government support, is currently developing a prototype of an electric Commodore.
"We make big cars in this country, and big cars are the ones that will save the most money and also the most emissions by going electric, so at a time where it hasn't always been easy for the Australian car industry, I just think that's a fantastic opportunity for us to create a future for that industry and anything we can do to help that happen, we will," Thornley says.
Right now, Better Place estimates that the cost of the batteries that power switchable-battery electric cars is somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000, which is expected to fall over time. And Better Place maintains the energy costs of running a switchable-battery electric car will be lower than running a petrol car. The company estimates that using 100 per cent renewable electricity will cost between 2.5 and 3 cents a kilometre, compared with 16 cents a kilometre for petrol. But to make that saving, you will have to cough up between $40,000 and $50,000 for the car.
There are hurdles yet. In Israel - the first test market for the rollout of the switching technology - there are reports commercial fleets are shying away from the cars because they're concerned about resale value.
The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2011 that Israeli companies felt the cars won't be popular second-hand, with one rental company executive labelling them "a gimmick."
Still, Sam Jaffe, a research manager for international energy consultancy IDC Energy Insights, recently wrote that Better Place might have timed its run at the electric car market just right. "One attractive element of Better Place's system is that once the network of chargers and battery-switch stations is built out, then the network is eminently scalable. Add a thousand cars or a million of them and the network can handle it. Thus Better Place's timing for its Israeli network couldn't be better," he said.
"Over the next 20 years we think that all our driving will move from petrol to electric and that that will start out very small but then will move very rapidly," Evan Thornley says.
For those old enough to remember the first mobile phone - as big and as heavy as a brick - maybe you'll forgive us when we say "only time will tell."