Electric Vehicles: Why is Australia in the slow lane?

Dan Bleakly

If we stop and think about how our communities are setup with regards to mobility, we start to realise that we're doing it all wrong. Somehow over the last century our cities have slowly been overtaken and clogged by cars. The vast majority of vehicles in our cities are Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles. ICE vehicles run on petrol, diesel and gas. ICE vehicles produce nasty exhaust fumes which have been linked to a myriad of health problems (especially in children) including asthma, lung damage, cognitive impairment and even increase the risk of childhood cancers such as leukemia.1 ICE vehicles also cause noise pollution which has been linked with stress and depression.2

Another impact that's not immediately apparent is the disconnection from community. Unlike when we walk or ride bicycles, we can't see each others faces when we're all in cars. Cars isolate us from each other and dehumanise us.

Considering all this it seems that we should all be walking and using bikes for short trips and only using cars when we really need to. Countries like Denmark and the Netherlands lead the world in bicycle infrastructure and their citizens benefit greatly from the cleaner air, reduced congestion and reduced noise that a well-designed bike network enables. The author had the privilege of living in Amsterdam for almost 12 months and can attest to that! Separated bike lanes make it safer for commuting cyclists and encourage more people to take it up. In Amsterdam kids as young is six ride to school. Imagine if our roads in Australia were that safe.

All that said, we still need cars for longer trips and we need to get off fossil fuels, so what do we do? Enter the Electric Vehicle Revolution. EVs produce no exhaust fumes and if powered by renewable energy sources can be completely emission free.

It may be surprising that some of the very first cars we electric. In fact, in the year 1900, 38% of vehicles in the US were EVs.3 So what happened? As big oil started generating more and more profits it started actively suppressing EVs by purchasing patents and spreading misinformation. We'll come to more of that later but for now let's take a look at the state-of play of EVs in 2019.

In 2018 there were 86 million new vehicles sold around the world. Of those, five million were EVs, which is roughly 6%. In 2017 it was 3.5 % and 2016 it was 2%. This tells us that the global sales of EVs is experiencing exponential growth. These global figures hide some large disparities when we look at a country by country basis.

In Australia there were 1.15 million new cars sold in 2018. Total EVs sold in Australia 2018 was a mere 2,216. This represents just 0.2% of new vehicles. This is the lowest uptake of EVs in the OECD by a long way. Currently the Australian uptake of EVs is 30 times slower than the global average.

On the flip side, Norway is the global leader in uptake of EVs and currently 60% of all new vehicles are EVs. The rate of uptake of EVs in Australia is 300 times slower than in Norway. When considering the well-known negative health impacts of ICE vehicle exhaust, all Australians should be outraged at the policies that have led to this pathetically slow rate of uptake. Policies that are affecting our health and our children's health right now.

So if EVs are such a no-brainer, why haven't we seen pro-EV policy in this country? It's a good question. The only logical answer is the same reason we haven't seen a pro-renewable energy policy in this country and that's fossil fuel money and influence in our democracy.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) campaign

To hammer home how insidious the oil industry is, let's look at the fascinating story taking place with Tesla right now. The oil industry generates around US$2 trillion globally every year. This makes up 2-3% of global GDP so it's a big number! Of the US$2 trillion, about 50% of that revenue is derived from road transport. This works out to US$2.75 billion in revenue per day. When we realise that each day that the EV revolution is delayed is worth US$2.75 billion, we can start to understand how much money (and power) the oil industry has to throw into Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) about EVs.

Companies like Tesla, which are growing rapidly, are a serious threat to the oil industry. Tesla currently holds 0.46% of a US$2.3 trillion global car market. Market size has doubled since last year. Tesla is currently the most shorted stock in history with 32% of all shares being shorted. Short selling is when an investor 'borrows' shares that they do not own and sells them at current market rate then buys them back at a lower price in the future. Shorting is basically betting that the company's share price will decrease.

Tesla is also the fastest growing car company in history so the only explanation for the high short rate is that the oil industry is shorting the stock to suppress it and create misinformation. Currently around US$10 billion has been shorted on Tesla (mostly from the oil industry). If the delay of uptake of EVs is valued at US$2.75 billion per day we can see that a $10 billion short position by the oil industry will pay for itself in less than two weeks.

These are the sort of dark murky strategies that big oil has been using for decades to suppress the growth of EVs. This time however they won't work as EV sales continue to grow.

The other thing that's important to note here is the entire industry is being disrupted. Previous generations wanted to "own" their own car but the younger generations want "mobility". We are seeing a large shift away from ownership with services like Uber and car share companies that are enabling people to go car-free.

This is a much more efficient use of assets. The average car is only used 5% of the time. For the other 95% of the day it's taking up valuable space in a car park. This just doesn't make sense in 2019. As people start go car free and use Uber and car share apps, we will see a dramatic drop in new car sales as each new car can service the mobility needs of more people.

The other exciting thing is full automation, which is just around the corner. Full autonomous 'robo-taxis' are just a year or two away. The cost of Tesla Network robo-taxi is estimated at $0.18 per km while Uber's cost is $1 per km. This will further incentivise people to give up car ownership.

As ICE car sales plummet while EVs and car ride/share takes off, we will see a massive drop in oil profits. As oil money dries up, the inevitable collapse in the oil industry will have profound positive impacts on democracies around the world. If we care about our beautiful planet and our democracy then we all have an obligation to accelerate the uptake of EVs and accelerate the demise of the most destructive industry in human history.

We still have a way to go however things on exponential curves can seem to be slow but then happen very quickly. Some positive news for all of us who are fighting for a better future!

Dan Bleakly is an engineer, a member of FoE Melbourne's Act on Climate collective, and a rebel with Extinction Rebellion.

References:

  1. www.who.int/ceh/publications/Advance-copy-Oct24_18150_Air-Pollution-and-Child-Health-merged-compressed.pdf?ua=1
  2. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1409400
  3. https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/25/38-percent-american-cars-electric-1900/

-----------

Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction


Whilst you are here, please make a tax deductible donation. Friends of the Earth relies on donations from people like you to keep running campaigns for social and environmental justice.