As a right-hand-drive market, Australia is in the minority. That much is pretty well known.
RHD cars aren’t an obscure rarity in the global market by any means, with over 60 countries currently using this format. Certainly, there are more LHD markets (over 140) and as a result more LHD production volume, around 75 per cent globally.
There are always murmurs that Australia should make the switch, that converting Australia’s road network and infrastructure to support right-hand traffic filled with LHD cars would help bring the cost of cars down, speed the introduction of new models, and provide greater market choice.
The only problem is, it wouldn’t. Actually, if anything it could make things worse here, not better.
If Australia switched sides there’d be no landslide of market forces, no huge change in buyer preferences, and – I hate to break it to you – probably no cost savings for consumers.
In short, things wouldn’t really change here. Left-hand drive is not the saving grace you might expect.
First, there’s the cost of changing infrastructure. Australia, as a firmly established and industrialised country, already has most of what it needs in place. The road network covers everything from rural roads to local suburban streets and a national highway network.
Basics probably don’t need to change much. Most roads can run in either direction, and many intersections would be able to undergo a light rework of signage and line marking to be fit for duty.
It’s when you start looking at freeway interchanges and complex urban junctions that the remodel would start to get expensive. The basics are, well, basic really.
If Australia decided to swap traffic sides, the Federal Government would pick an enforceable target date – let's say, hypothetically, January 1st 2025. In the lead-up to that date you’d double-up everything, stop signs and give-way signs on both sides of an intersection, and line markings that cater to pre- and post-switch traffic.
You’ll have seen plenty of times a garbage bag taped over a sign or ‘not in use’ cards over a traffic light. Before the switch the new equipment gets bagged, and after the old equipment gets covered.
Logistically complex, but achievable. There will be a cost, though, and that will have to be covered somehow.
So, potentially, in the five-year lead-up and five-year run-down an excise applies. It could be an income tax rise, an additional new car levy, an extra fuel excise, or a registration hike. Possibly even a combination of more than one.
Five years a side seems lean, though. Think more like 10 years either side of the implementation date.
It may not impact the cost of a new car directly, but would impact your cost of living one way or another, so it's a cost to count. As is the cost of education that would need to take place.
Every Aussie needs to know about the change. Every TV station, radio station, and newspaper will need to carry an educational campaign. Every resident in Australia needs to know, regardless of where they live, from Woolloomooloo to the last remaining residents of Wittenoom.
A promotional effort like that doesn’t come cheaply, from billboard ads to direct mail-outs. Every penny counts, and every penny is likely to be drawn from the Australian taxpayer to achieve the goal.
That could be hundreds of millions of dollars, per state. Billions in total. Don’t believe me, look at the funding price tag for the next set of road upgrades you pass; the bills are huge, and every government loves a spending overrun.
If that’s the case, wouldn't you rather billions of dollars of investment into improving the crumbling road network we have now? Resurface freeways, take the patchwork joins out of main streets, seal some potholes, instead of sticking in extra traffic lights and stop signs.
Heck, you could even dedicate that money to improved driver training and make a genuine positive impact on road safety. Just a thought.
But what about cars themselves?
Well, the choices available to Australians could potentially increase, but I’d wager they won’t.
There's a multitude of market forces at work. First of all, a demand needs to exist, and that demand needs to be more than one or two people saying “I’d buy that if they offered it here”.
Australian Design Rules could probably be retired at this point, but even if they were, some standards still need to apply. In which case, which system does Australia adopt? There's no unity between the regulations of Europe, China or the United States.
There are certainly plenty of common elements, and carmakers, by the nature of economic efficiencies, build cars capable of meeting multiple regulatory targets, but a new Leftstralia would need to side with someone.
From there, the standard of choice means cars developed for other markets either need to have the cost of compliance factored into the price, or they simply stay out of the market.
Same goes for the choice of models or brands. Adding a model to an existing range carries a cost: parts support, dealer training, and more. That doesn’t happen for mainstream cars at low volumes – either they sell plenty or they tend to stay out of the market.
So, in a hugely competitive market like Australia, which already has more brands than it needs, would more try their luck? There’s every possibility a few brands might, but which ones?
There might be room for the Ford Explorer, and pick-ups like the F-150 or Ram Trucks are sure to get the green light, but anything else would need a new dealer network or fall into a too-hard basket to bring to market.
Does Ford need Lincoln to slot in above its mainstream label? Would GM try its luck re-entering a market where there’s no widespread buyer awareness of Buick or GMC? Could Euro-obscurities like Dacia or Seat have a go?
It just doesn't seem likely, particularly when most Euro brands that aren’t sold here already have a RHD presence. The door is open to Chinese brands, but they’d need mature-market products first – something often missing from their current ranges.
What you might get, if you’re lucky, are Dodge Chargers and Challengers. Nothing wrong with the 700+hp Hellcat versions either, mind you.
We’d probably have to take them as low-spec V6 taxi, cop car, and rental variants, and trust me, that’s not anything the market is crying out for.
If you can’t quell your urge for a heavy, slow, cop-spec Crown Vic or Tahoe and want to play at being detective Jake Peralta, bring one in under the 25-year import rule, or save up for a trip to the US and rent an Escalade. Trust me, you’ll make more memories that way.
As for cheaper versions of existing cars. Probably not straight away, if at all. If any behind-the-scenes cost savings were made, brands would hold onto those increased margins with a vice-like grip.
The market can’t change overnight (even if the direction of travel does), so Australians, who traditionally get a high level of standard equipment in new cars, would expect the same from a LHD car as they do of a RHD one.
A BMW 320i won’t get cheaper unless a more basic model arrives. There’s fabric trim, 16-inch wheels, 8.8-inch infotainment, analogue gauges and a 115kW engine as part of a bare-bones 318i overseas, but Australia gets a 135kW engine, 18-inch wheels, Alcantara and leather-look trim, and 10.25-inch infotainment with digital instruments as standard.
That stripped-out model isn’t what the market has been clamouring for. BMW would probably already have it here if it were. The higher level of equipment we get here as standard is the market expectation.
Years of in-market research tells brands this. Vehicle specifications don’t happen by accident.
As for fixed costs, nothing changes in terms of production. Manufacturing and distribution overheads stay the same, the same production line costs, the same economies of scale as applied over the whole production run.
Australia will still be the same distance from Germany as it was before, or the same distance from Korea, from Mexico, from Thailand, or from the US, Canada, or Japan as it was before, so shipping costs can’t go down.
They could go up, though. Cutting out RHD cars sourced from countries like Thailand and Japan could mean supply switches to elsewhere. Hypothetically, a Camry won’t come from Japan, it’ll come from the USA. Sourcing of the Navara could change from Thailand to Spain or Argentina.
Because those countries don’t have the same shipping volumes to Australia, and are further away, those models could rise in price. Even if they didn’t, though, they wouldn’t get any cheaper.
The only tangible difference might be the speed of introduction of new models. Let’s say RHD production starts six months after LHD production of a certain model. Australia has no choice but to wait until cars are built before it can sell them.
So, the queue hypothetically shortens by six months, but does that make Australia a priority market? Well, it depends who else is on that list.
Australia wouldn’t jump to the top of the waitlist for a popular model just because it shares a steering side with other countries. The biggest demand will still be met first, and in a country the size of Australia, mainstream cars would still have to wait their turn.
So, in reality the effect of Australia switching from right-hand drive to left-hand drive would more than likely be a ripple, not a tidal wave.
The market wouldn’t be revolutionised, cars won’t suddenly come down in price, we’re not particularly missing out on anything too special (hypercar market aside), and the new cars you see in dealerships might change a little, but not dramatically.
Reckon it’s worth the effort? Personally, I have my doubts.
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