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Is time running out for Australia to adopt electric cars? Why a lack of EV uptake strategy could cost local drivers dearly | opinion

The Tesla Model 3 is currently the best-selling all-electric vehicle in Australia.

After years of inaction, it seems Australia’s lawmakers have finally begun to take the widespread acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs) more seriously - and it comes not a moment too soon.

That’s because several major carmakers - including Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Kia (to name a few) - have made commitments to either go entirely electric or be predominantly electrified by the middle of next decade.

As has been written many times previously, Australia is at risk of being left behind in the race towards an electric future, and with more and more EVs coming, our lack of incentives has left them more expensive and less appealing than existing combustion-engined cars.

We’ve already seen that be a problem with brands such as Kia struggling to get supply of its EV models because head office prefers to support markets that have more support and therefore more demand.

The problem is, with a lack of incentives and - as in the case of Victoria and South Australia - EVs being hit with new road-user charges that disincentivize would-be buyers, Australia could find itself missing out on more and more new models, effectively becoming a dumping ground for old cars.

As recently as the 2019 Federal election, the two major political parties were at odds over EVs. Prime minister Scott Morrison accused former Labor leader Bill Shorten of wanting to “end the weekend” with his goal of having 50 per cent of all new-vehicle sales being EVs by 2030.

Aside from the obvious hyperbole, by 2030, the UK will have banned 100 per cent of petrol and diesel-powered car sales. And it’s not alone, China will follow suit in 2035 and France will do the same by 2040.

The decision by the Victorian and South Australian governments to propose a ‘road user charge’ that would force EV owners to pay 2.5 cents for every kilometre they drive is unprecedented around the world.

Following significant criticism, the Victorian government announced this week that it would introduce a goal of reaching 50 per cent of new sales being EVs or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) by 2030 and begin paying out $3000 subsidies to buyers of electric cars. 

It’s an ironic move given the government will effectively be encouraging buyers into EVs only to then tax them for driving them. Not only that, but drivers of plug-in hybrid vehicles are actually in line to be slugged twice, being hit with both the fuel excise when they need to top up and having to pay an extra 2.0 cents per kilometre they drive.

Meanwhile, this week has also seen New South Wales’ incumbent Coalition government announce plans to take an entirely different approach than Victoria.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance suggested EVs should be incentivised with no stamp duty, access to bus lanes and subsided parking.

In some of the most pointed comments from a politician to date on EV acceptance, he said Australia risked becoming “the laughing stock of the world” with its state-by-state policies.

“The rest of the world will have moved to full manufacturing of electric vehicles and here we are sort of struggling,” Minister Constance said.

He admitted a road-user charge remains on the agenda as the anticipated decline in fuel excise will hit the state’s coffers, however his plan has a major difference to the Victorian proposal: a NSW road-user charge shouldn’t happen until at least 40 per cent of cars on the state’s road were EVs.

“In the EV market, we’ve got clunky uptake and we’ve got clumsiness around incentives,” Minister Constance said. “That’s not how to incentivise across the board a national shift in the market around innovation.”

He added: “I don’t want us to be left high and dry.” 

But that’s exactly where Australia finds itself at the moment. The lack of a national strategy for not only EVs but also cleaner fuel laws is putting carmakers, especially European ones that are ramping up for the introduction of the strict ‘Euro 7’ regulations in 2025, which will force a 60-90 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Volkswagen, which was shamed by its emissions scandal and has subsequently pushed to transition to EVs, has publicly pushed for stricter standards on emissions to ensure Australia doesn’t become a “dumping ground” for older models.

But the federal government wasted no time hitting back at the brand and dismissing any changes to Australia’s current automotive fuel regulations, saying in a statement: “The Morrison government will not be lectured about vehicles emissions by a car manufacturer that has a track record of deceiving motorists and violating clean-air laws.”

The German brand hasn’t let that swipe slow down its push for cleaner fuel and lower emissions across the automotive industry.

“Volkswagen could scarcely have been more outspoken in the national media in its pursuit of meaningful CO2 targets and the desperate need to clean up Australia’s dirty petrol, all the while calling out Victoria’s thought-bubble EV tax proposal,” said Volkswagen Australia’s general manager of communications, Paul Pottinger.

“If conditions were to be purpose designed to frustrate the introduction, both of zero-emission vehicles and the latest conventional engines (including plug-in hybrids as opposed to so-called self-charging models), Australia’s embarrassing regulatory backwardness would serve as the model.”

With a Federal election due by the end of 2022, it seems the debate about EV uptake and automotive emissions is set to become a larger topic on the political stage.

Whatever happens in terms of a political outcome, Australia’s federal and state governments will need to ramp up its policies to help the acceptance of EVs if they have any interest in catching up to the rest of the world.