Australia's politicians are childish on EVs

The debate on new energy vehicles here feels primitive. EVs are not political toys, they're an inevitable challenge with huge opportunities
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The commentary about electric vehicles (EV) from Australia’s political class has been one of the more tedious issues during this interminable election. That’s irrespective of who you barrack for.

I write this after keeping one anguished eye on a leader’s debate between two blokes rubbishing each other, and another eye on a Twitter-sphere speculating how much a Nissan Leaf costs ($50k) and discerning ‘results’ by studying body language.

Other developed nations are well along the path to a zero-tailpipe-emission future, citing environmental necessity and economic opportunity in similar doses. Even climate skeptics see reasons to back EVs: they’re quieter, faster, simpler to maintain, and not that hard to charge.

Yet Australia is just treating the whole thing like the proverbial political football, years after everywhere else got their sh*t together.

Consider this exchange from the televised leader’s debate last night, between Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison, on the cost of “a popular electric car”.

Shorten: "I haven't bought a new car in a while so I couldn't tell you."
Morrison: "I can tell you how much [more an] electric car costs than a standard car, it's $28,000. It's $28,000 [more] for the same type of car."
Shorten: "Well that's great we've got a Prime Minister spending his time in the motor pages. That's great."
Morrison: "Well that's where most Australians spend their time, mate."

It’s embarrassing that both our leader and his prospective replacement in the big chair do not have a detailed, nuanced understanding of the global auto market, actually.

How doesn’t Bill Shorten know the price of an EV, weeks after the ALP announced a (sensible enough) target for 50% of all cars sold here from 2030 be electric? It’s not that challenging, mate…

And why doesn’t Morrison understand citing the price for an EV today is irrelevant, since the price in five years time will be similar to a petrol car, because that’s how tech market maturation works?

PS, that’s according to research conducted by Morgan Stanley and cited by Nissan’s global head of electric vehicles, Nic Thomas, at a recent Nissan Futures seminar in Hong Kong.

While countries across Europe prepare to phase out internal combustion cars, Israel fosters cutting-edge development, and China gears up to sell 1.3 million new-energy vehicles this year alone (that’s bigger than the entire Australian new vehicle market), what do we have?

Scaremongering rhetoric around setting a “war on the weekend” by confiscating our diesel HiLuxes (said as Ford gears up for an electric F-Series). Spare me.

The reality is this: every car company worth a damn is intensely focused on developing new-energy vehicles (NEV) – hybrids, fuel-cell and most obviously battery electric cars. Even though they're losing a ton of money right now to make sure they're future-proofed. And meets standards.

A mixture of emissions caps, NEV sales targets and direct subsidies from core markets all over the map has given these big OEMs the confidence to invest.

Australia is largely a passive receiver of auto imports, unless we find a way to incentivise manufacturing once again. And even if we did, it wouldn’t be the production of V8s that’d be viable.

The Australian body politics may be debating the finer points of EVs from an ideological standpoint, but it’s a childish sideshow.

We can largely all agree, I hope, the Greens wanting every car to be electric by 2030 is... ambitious, just as we can deride the Coalition’s 'deny deny deny' approach, which I’d deem to be the apotheosis of the ostrich.

And while I have admitted sympathy for the ALP’s incentivised middle ground, Shorten’s seeming inability to properly articulate accurate EV charging times or cite pricing won’t be filling swing voters with confidence.

What we want is for the body politic to actually take this issue seriously, with the tacit understanding every sensible car company is pumping billions into hybrids and EVs as we speak. It's the new reality, no matter what we think.

And there are real challenges to be addressed.

Carrot or stick to help the market, or neither? Do we have the infrastructure? How’s our power created in the first place? How do we make-up the lost fuel levy funds? What are our actual emissions targets?

Or maybe in a more expansionist and proactive sense, can we make EV batteries here? We sure have the lithium and cobalt in the ground… Are we able to capture lucrative R&D contracts? Do we support local companies such as Tritium, a world-leader in EV chargers based in Brisbane?

“When I speak to international companies and investors, every single one brings up Australia's potential in this,” says CEO of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari.

“It’s not a partisan issue elsewhere in the world… other countries are usually much further progressed than we are. When we ask [EV councils from other markets] ‘how did you get your government to focus on the issue?’ they’re baffled.

"There is no ‘how do we talk them into it’, they’re already there.

“It's strange when they look at Australia and say ‘why are you debating if this is something that is going to happen? It’s like debating ‘is the sky blue’?”

Facts are facts. By 2030 a great chunk of our vehicle fleet will be EV unless we outright ban them. That’s where the market is heading, and we’re in danger of being a mere recipient sitting at the kid’s table if we don’t move the debate away from where it is now.

It’s time these real issues were discussed, not vacillations between ideologically-driven talking points.

We’re 10 steps behind the developed world in this space, and we won’t catch up until we tackle the issue properly. It’s not a joke, or a fringe issue, and you’re either on the tracks or the train.