Plug it in, Ed­die

Can­berra looks at back­ing brands with main­stream bat­tery power

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - COVER STORY - JOHN CAREY

SALES of plug-in cars are boom­ing in Europe, among them our Prime Min­is­ter’s favourite, the Tesla Model S.

Mal­colm Turn­bull, as Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter in Jan­uary last year, vis­ited the Cal­i­for­nian fac­tory where this elec­tric-pow­ered lux­ury car is built. It was “a great thrill” he wrote on Face­book.

“Walk­ing through the highly au­to­mated assem­bly lines was in­spir­ing, but noth­ing matched tak­ing a test drive in the lat­est Tesla S model,” Turn­bull said. He found “the jolt you feel when you hit the ac­cel­er­a­tor” quite ex­cit­ing.

Equally im­pres­sive was the com­pany’s rapid growth. “Tesla has gone from em­ploy­ing 500 peo­ple to 11,000 in five years.” This was, he said, “a re­minder of how in­no­va­tion drives jobs”.

But Tesla isn’t suc­ceed­ing only be­cause it builds a good­look­ing elec­tric car with as­ton­ish­ing per­for­mance and a long driv­ing range be­tween recharges.

Govern­ments around the world have done much to stim­u­late de­mand for the Model S and other plug-in cars.

Aus­tralia could soon join in. In Fe­bru­ary the Turn­bull Govern­ment’s Min­is­te­rial Fo­rum on Ve­hi­cle Emis­sions is­sued a dis­cus­sion pa­per putting aid for plug-in cars on the agenda.

Among other things, said En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Greg Hunt, it will ex­am­ine “op­tions for … al­ter­na­tive fu­els and elec­tric ve­hi­cles, the use of in­cen­tives and bol­ster­ing emis­sions test­ing ar­range­ments”.

Rec­om­men­da­tions to the fo­rum will be ready in June.

Europe shows just how ef­fec­tive tax ex­emp­tions, buyer sub­si­dies and other mea­sures can be in per­suad­ing wary mo­torists to buy plug-in cars.

Elec­tric ve­hi­cle sales in Den­mark, where the govern­ment wants mo­torists to use the country’s abun­dant wind en­ergy in­stead of oil, rose a mas­sive 190 per cent last year. There are more than four times as many Aus­tralians as Danes but Den­mark buys more than four times as many plug-in ve­hi­cles as we do.

The best-sell­ing elec­tric car in Den­mark in 2015 was the Model S. Thanks to a govern­ment pol­icy ex­empt­ing new elec­tric cars from the 180 per cent reg­is­tra­tion tax (that’s not a mis­print), the plugin Amer­i­can is less than half the price of sim­i­lar lux­ury cars with in­ter­nal com­bus­tion power.

In Hol­land, a dif­fer­ent mix of less costly in­cen­tives ap­plies, with lower reg­is­tra­tion fees and road taxes for plug-in ve­hi­cles, spe­cially re­served park­ing in crowded Am­s­ter­dam and some sub­si­dies for buy­ers of elec­tricpow­ered com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles and taxis. Elec­tric ve­hi­cles sales there rose 184 per cent last year.

As Den­mark and Hol­land led the elec­tric car charge in 2015, other Euro­pean na­tions had sim­i­lar sto­ries — in Ger­many sales were up 130 per cent, Spain 80 per cent, Nor­way 71, France 67, Spain 54, Italy 49 and Bri­tain 48.

In Aus­tralia, plug-in sales de­clined by more than 2 per cent last year.

De­spite Mr Turn­bull’s en­thu­si­asm-stok­ing Tesla test drive last year, the Fed­eral Govern­ment has no spe­cific in­cen­tives for Aus­tralians to adopt elec­tric cars, to the dis­may of car brands.

“Aus­tralia trails the world in our emis­sions lev­els and sus­tain­abil­ity poli­cies, with our cur­rent read­ings be­ing on par with some un­der­de­vel­oped coun­tries,” says BMW Aus­tralia cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions chief Lenore Fletcher.

Can­berra should do more, she says. “This is an area where BMW sees enor­mous op­por­tu­nity for the govern­ment to make a real dif­fer­ence to the level of Aus­tralia’s emis­sions.”

Mercedes-Benz Aus­tralia spokesman Jerry Sta­moulis be­lieves in­cen­tives would be ef­fec­tive. “If there were govern­ment in­cen­tives in place we would see spikes in plug-in hy­brid sales sim­i­lar to those in Europe now,” he says.

Mak­ers of more af­ford­able cars than BMW and MercedesBenz also think in­cen­tives are needed to kick­start the mar­ket for plug-in cars in Aus­tralia.

“Un­less the Aus­tralian govern­ment adopts sim­i­lar poli­cies (to Europe) lo­cally,” says Mit­subishi Aus­tralia cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions head Shayna Welsh, “we don’t ex­pect any sig­nif­i­cant change in de­mand for elec­tric ve­hi­cles and plug-in hy­brid elec­tric ve­hi­cles un­til the

tech­nol­ogy be­comes more af­ford­able.

“There are more things govern­ments could be do­ing to im­prove the eco­nom­ics of buy­ing an elec­tric ve­hi­cle or plug-in hy­brid elec­tric ve­hi­cle.”

Mit­subishi’s Out­lander PHEV is cur­rently Aus­tralia’s best-sell­ing car with a cord. With 753 sales in 2015, this rel­a­tively af­ford­able SUV ac­counted for 68 per cent of the Aus­tralian plug-in mar­ket.

Cost is key, Welsh says. The Ja­panese com­pany is work­ing on two new plug-ins, a small SUV that will come with petrol, diesel and plug-in hy­brid driv­e­trains, plus a pure elec­tric ver­sion of the next-gen­er­a­tion ASX.

Mit­subishi Aus­tralia will con­sider a num­ber of fac­tors be­fore de­cid­ing to add them to its lo­cal line-up, in­clud­ing “whether the tech­nol­ogy can be in­tro­duced at a price and per­for­mance level that is com­pet­i­tive with diesel or petrol equiv­a­lents”.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, will press ahead re­gard­less with their plug-in plans.

In May, BMW will in­tro­duce two plug-in hy­brid ver­sions of pop­u­lar mod­els. The com­pany al­ready sells two quite spe­cialised cars un­der its “Born Elec­tric” sub-brand, the lit­tle bat­tery-pow­ered i3 and the plug-in hy­brid i8 su­per­car. With the new­com­ers, BMW aims to take bat­tery power main­stream.

The $71,900 330e sedan will cost $2000 more than its petrol equiv­a­lent. The plug-in 3 Se­ries will be as pow­er­ful as the 330i yet able to drive up to 37km on elec­tric­ity alone.

The $118,900 X5 xDrive 40e, with a 31km elec­tric range, will be $3000 more than its turbo diesel equiv­a­lent.

Th­ese BMWs will soon face com­pe­ti­tion. Mercedes-Benz Aus­tralia, which has so far opted not to im­port the likes of the bat­tery-pow­ered B-Class, plans to launch three plug-ins by the mid­dle of this year.

The C350e sedan and GLE500e SUV are the ex­act Mercedes equiv­a­lents of BMW’s 330e and X5 xDrive 40e. The third Mercedes model will be the S500e, an elec­tri­fied ver­sion of its limo flag­ship.

Some man­u­fac­tur­ers have pulled the plug on plug-ins, as Holden did with the Volt, and some re­main wary. How­ever, this in­flux of new con­tenders means eco-minded mo­torists will soon have more choice than ever.

“The ve­hi­cle and green en­ergy op­tions are avail­able,” says Benz’s Sta­moulis. “All that is needed now is an at­trac­tive govern­ment in­cen­tive to en­cour­age con­sumers to adopt this tech­nol­ogy sooner.”

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