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The car industry embarrassed itself over the new emissions laws | Opinion

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NVES is due to begin on July 1, 2025.
NVES is due to begin on July 1, 2025.

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you kids need boundaries. Regardless of what those boundaries are, whether you’re a strict parent or more liberal, every parent puts some kind of restriction on their kids. 

So, what does this have to do with cars, I hear you ask?

Well, since the first automobile arrived in Australia, the car industry has had no boundaries on how much harmful CO2 gas its vehicles could emit into the atmosphere. That changed in the past week with the Federal Government pushing through its New Vehicle Efficiency Standard (NVES) after several months of back-and-forth with the industry.

From the first moment NVES was announced it has felt like almost the entirety of the Australian car industry has acted like children being told they can’t keep eating cake and ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The pushback, both publicly and privately, was immediate and extreme, with the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) - the lobby group that is meant to represent all car brands - beginning an obvious, and frankly ham-fisted, fear campaign around electric vehicles; which form the unspoken centrepiece of NVES.

We were told by the FCAI that EV sales had reached a “plateau” in January, being only 0.8 per cent up on the previous January, only for electric cars sales to finish February more than 39 per cent up on the same period in 2023. Awkward…

Even when I questioned FCAI CEO Tony Weber about the overt anti-EV rhetoric coming from his organisation, he only stoked the flames.

“There's many elements to this,” Weber told me in March. “This is about safety, not only in terms of accidents, but also safety, you know, thinking, 'Oh, jeez, I want to get the wife and children home safely.' These are significant issues.”

He didn’t specifically go into details about why an EV would be inherently less safe than an internal combustion engine vehicle, especially to a woman and children, but the implication was that they are inferior to a petrol or diesel alternative and put your family at risk, which is an evocative thing to say.

This very public campaign to try and slam the brakes on electric vehicles and maintain the status quo was simply an untenable position for the industry to take. Unfortunately for the FCAI, its meant-to-be-private briefing paper was made public as part of a Senate enquiry and it’s disappointing to read, as someone who both loves cars and the planet we live on, how against progress the peak industry comes across.

The Federal Government's New Vehicle Efficiency Standard has passed through both houses of parliament.
The Federal Government's New Vehicle Efficiency Standard has passed through both houses of parliament.

I don’t believe that is the intention of the FCAI, but that’s how it comes across in not only this paper but also its public comments and reports from sources inside the industry. Once you know this stance and read the pages and pages of negativity and hesitation around EVs, it’s quite clear why Tesla and Polestar quit the FCAI.

In its document the FCAI was asking for a “more cautious approach” that would “allow more time to monitor progress” of changing technology and consumer trends, rather than what was put forward by the government in the NVES.

More time?! More time than what? We’ve known for decades that cars are not great for the environment and both the previous Coalition and Labor government before that have discussed an emissions standard for the automotive sector for nearly 15 years.

The analogy I have used to those within the industry is that car brands have behaved like school kids who know they have an exam coming up, but have chosen not to study and prepare themselves, only to complain when the teacher starts handing out the exam.

The harsh truth is, we should have had NVES back in 2010 when it was first discussed. It would have given every brand more time to prepare and would have allowed for a more linear ramp up of EVs and gentler reduction in our reliance on petrol and diesel vehicles.

Pushing against that now, and effectively delaying this process any further just simply isn’t an option and it was unrealistic for the FCAI to suggest more time is needed.

To be clear, this isn’t to lay the blame solely on Weber - the man has a job to do and not an easy one. He has to represent more than 50 car brands, which all have different interests in mind. As FCAI CEO he has to contend with the various opinions and prerogatives that the diverse range of brands have. For example, quite clearly Toyota is probably going to have a different perspective from Tesla when it comes to emissions standards, and that’s just one example of what the FCAI has to deal with.

The ramp up towards electrification needed to be a gentler curve than the one we now face.
The ramp up towards electrification needed to be a gentler curve than the one we now face.

I can appreciate that Weber is in a very tricky position trying to manage the expectations and best interests of so many different businesses, but clearly his tactics didn’t work and ultimately, as the FCAI’s CEO he is the one who has been publicly held responsible; whether that’s deserved or not can only be decided by those within the inner-sanctum of the industry.

According to multiple industry sources I have spoken to, the key negotiator with the government was American Barbara Kiss, rather than anyone from the FCAI, who was flown in by other parties to bring her experience. Kiss is a former General Motors compliance executive and expert in emissions regulations, she spearheaded negotiations along with direct representatives from several car companies. She is the one, privately, credited with convincing the government to reclassify body-on-frame SUVs as light-commercial vehicles, in what was one of the biggest concessions for the carmakers. Notably, when the compromised deal was announced by Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, he was joined by individuals from Toyota, Ford, Hyundai and Tesla, but no-one from the FCAI.

But here’s the twist - I don’t think Weber and the FCAI (or at least the majority of the power brokers within the body) are entirely wrong to push back on EVs.

Yes, I know I’ve just spent several hundred words questioning their tactics, and I certainly have issues with them, but the underlying point isn’t ridiculous. I think the Australian market isn’t ready for a sudden influx of electric cars. I don’t think the majority of car buyers want them - regardless of price. I don’t think every brand will survive the introduction of NVES, as some simply do not have the model mix to meet the very strict targets laid down by the government.

As Weber told me in our March interview: “It's a question of the speed, and a question of the trajectory of this thing. Sure, some manufacturers are there, quickly. It's obviously easier, for example, at the premium end of the market, I understand this. But we need to think about all consumers, and what it does, especially at the volume end, which is the vast proportion of our market, it's about 88 per cent, we need to think about price points and the availability of the product.”

Some brands are ill-prepared for this not-so-sudden change, heavily reliant on diesel-powered utes and SUVs.
Some brands are ill-prepared for this not-so-sudden change, heavily reliant on diesel-powered utes and SUVs.

I totally agree that the ramp up towards electrification needed to be a gentler curve than the one we now face. The problem is, until Thursday last week, this country’s politicians didn’t put any boundaries on the car industry. They were parents allowing their kids to do whatever they wanted (at least in terms of emissions) and that became unacceptable.

Now, I don’t like politics and I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field. I think the current political discourse is as bad as it has ever been. But regardless of your ideological persuasion, you must admit that every industry needs some sort of regulation and that is the role of government. 

I want our elected officials to hold corporations to account. If they didn’t we’d all be swimming in beaches filled with garbage, kids would still be working in the mines and the roads would look like something out of Mad Max.

Now, the time has come for the car industry and, frankly, the way it has handled this should be embarrassing. They complained and tried to push back legislation that should have been introduced a decade ago.

For years car company executives have been telling me that this is what they wanted, a CO2 target figure and not an enforced technological solution (aka as a ban of the internal combustion engine). And yet, when that's what the government proposes, they complain and cry foul.

Some brands are ill-prepared for this not-so-sudden change, heavily reliant on diesel-powered utes and SUVs and have few or no EVs in showrooms (or even in the pipeline, in some cases) so will struggle to catch-up. But there are others, established brands, not newcomers like Tesla and Polestar, that have already spent years preparing for this inevitable moment and have invested in electrification and begun introducing it.

Again, as any parent will tell you, some kids behave themselves and other kids like playing with pointy objects. But it’s up to us as both consumers and voters to ensure that we are looked after in the long-term with more fuel-efficient, less-polluting vehicles that are affordable and meet our needs. And that won’t happen if we never start the process, so even if NVES isn’t perfect at least it starts progress towards what is, hopefully, a better future for both us and our kids.

Stephen Ottley
Contributing Journalist
Steve has been obsessed with all things automotive for as long as he can remember. Literally, his earliest memory is of a car. Having amassed an enviable Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection as a kid he moved into the world of real cars with an Alfa Romeo Alfasud. Despite that questionable history he carved a successful career for himself, firstly covering motorsport for Auto Action magazine before eventually moving into the automotive publishing world with CarsGuide in 2008. Since then he's worked for every major outlet, having work published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age,, Street Machine, V8X and F1 Racing. These days he still loves cars as much as he did as a kid and has an Alfa Romeo Alfasud in the garage (but not the same one as before... that's a long story).
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