World EV road trip reveals an Australian market in the slow lane | Environment

As the recent electric vehicle summit got under way Dr Jake Whitehead was sitting in a plane somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

The conference was intended as a reset to overcome nearly a decade of Australia’s policy inertia on electric vehicles and road transport under the former Coalition government – ​​but Whitehead, head of policy at the Electric Vehicle Council, was on holiday.

It had been a dream trip for a longtime EV researcher: three separate stints across thousands of kilometers in three different countries with his partner – all in electric or hybrid vehicles.

As his colleagues were shaking hands and listening to keynote speeches, Whitehead was getting a first-hand education in what the rest of the world had been up to on the electric vehicle front during the two years Australia closed its borders to the world.

“You can read as much as you want online but it’s not until you’re actually over there and able to do the comparison that you can see what’s actually happening here in Australia,” he says.

“It’s amazing to see how much further these countries have come.”

The electric journey started with a two-day stopover in Los Angeles where the couple checked out the new Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T electric utes that weren’t yet available in Australia.

Next, they headed north for a 2,500km drive through the Canadian wilderness to Banff in a Tesla Model Y. From there, they skipped over to Iceland where they rented a plug-in hybrid 4WD as the Fagradalsfjall volcano began to erupt. For the final leg they flew to Sweden where Whitehead’s wife rented a luxury Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo for his birthday.

Along the way Whitehead says he couldn’t help making mental notes: in the US, Volkswagen’s charging subsidiary Electrify America, was building a vast charging network at easily accessible locations such as Ikea and Starbucks carparks. In Vancouver, car-sharing schemes were allowing people to temporarily use cars including electric vehicles. Over in Europe, Tesla had opened up its charging network to the public, meaning anyone could use it.

In Europe, Tesla has opened up its charging stations network to the public, meaning anyone could use it. Photograph: Jessica Whitehead

“I lived in Europe for six years, but I hadn’t been back in five years and the change has been huge,” Whiteford says. “Everywhere you go, you see electric vehicles. You go to the supermarket, there’s EVs there. Go to the beach, there’s EVs. Driving along the highway? EVs.

But it was in Sweden where he noticed the biggest changes. There were electric cars at the airport and when Whitehead went to visit friends, they couldn’t understand his interest in their vehicles.

“I’d show up and say: ‘Oh, you’ve got an EV’,” he says.

“They’d reply: ‘Yeah, so what?’”

It is an experience about to be shared by many Australians: over the last decade the country’s politicians may have dragged electric cars into the culture wars but in the two years Australia spent closed off during the pandemic, the world changed.

And as the futures sketched out in government planning documents reveal, other countries have begun to reshape streetscapes in a noticeable way, giving a taste of what may be to come at home.

The EV road ahead

In 2012, just 120,000 electric vehicles were sold worldwide – today that number is sold every week.

According to the International Energy Agency’s 2022 World Energy outlook, electric cars made up more than 8% of the global new car market, or roughly 6.5m cars in 2021.

Australia represents just a fraction of these. In 2021, 20,065 electric cars were sold, which is a threefold increase on the 6900 cars sold in 2020 but still a rounding error compared to numbers reported overseas.

How the rest of the world kept moving as Australia fell into a time warp is largely due to good policy overseas.

In 2021 the International Energy Agency, a deeply conservative institution set up to monitor global oil supplies, released a report that found the world needed over two-thirds of all new car sales globally to be electric by 2030, and more than 3bn electric cars on the road by 2050 to reach net zero.

Even as Australia’s political leadership continues to tiptoe around a potential tire or planned phaseout of internal combustion engines, several countries, states, cities and companies have announced a deadline for the end of petrol and diesel cars.

Among the most ambitious is Norway, which will ban the sale of petrol cars from 2025. Others, such as the EU member states, the UK, Canada and the US state of California have opted for a ban on new combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Even China has its own plan.

Such jurisdictions are helping people go electric. Until recently the UK government offered grants for low emissions passenger vehicles among other incentives for EV drivers, such as zero vehicle excise duty.

Though the ambition of such policies could be debated, the resulting uptake of EVs in the UK is a stark contrast to the lagging Australian market: as of July 2022, 127,492 cars registered in the UK were battery electric vehicles, up from 85,032 cars at the same time in 2021.

As sales have grown the government’s attention has turned to infrastructure.

There’s better bike infrastructure in the middle of the Dutch countryside than anywhere in this country

By far the most rapid progress has been made in Scandinavian countries. In Norway the transition began in 1990 when the band A-ha engaged in an act of civil disobedience by driving around the country in a homemade EV refusing to pay tolls and parking fines. Since then the country has introduced a suite of policies cutting VAT fees, offering free parking and charging and other incentives that have also been introduced in neighboring countries.

In January this year, electric vehicle sales accounted for 83.7% of all new vehicles registered in Norway, in July it was 70.7%.

Jake Whitehead sits in a red Rivian electric ute with the driver door open
Jake Whitehead in a Rivian R1T electric ute in Los Angeles during his recent world EV road trip. Photograph: Jessica Whitehead

As Australia debated whether electric vehicles were feasible, the widespread uptake in places like Norway and Sweden have made them part of the woodwork – though some countries have gone even further.

On a trip to the Netherlands in May, Tom Swann, a climate advocate with the Sunrise Project, said he was “gobsmacked” at how the country had “put cars in their place”.

“I stepped off the train at Amsterdam Centraal and felt like I’d landed in a bike utopia,” Swann said. “More bikes than humans. Barges in the river, full of racks that will be used to store even more bikes.”

“There’s better bike infrastructure in the middle of the Dutch countryside than anywhere in this country.”

Catching up to the rest of the world

“Coming back to Australia, there’s always a sense you’re coming back in time,” Whiteford says.

When he landed in Brisbane, Whiteford says the “first and biggest contrast” he noticed was that there was no option for an electric taxi at the airport.

Outside the terminal, the pistons in the waiting cars fired on expensive imported petroleum and the smell of exhaust hung in the air.

“You can hear it. You can smell it,” he says. “For me, the biggest thing is actually the impact on the air around me. I’m conscious that I’m breathing in these fossil fuels that have been combusted in an engine.”

“But then I don’t have an alternative. What am I going to do? Walk home?”

Dr Whiteford says the recent EV summit has raised hopes that Australia might now be getting its act together but it would still take “three to four years” to see real change.

“If nothing changes, we won’t catch up to where Sweden is today for 20 years,” he says. “It’s not as if the rest of the world is sitting and waiting for us to catch up.”

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