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Publisher's Letter

Electric cars are viable right now

by Leo Simpson

Peter Seligman’s articles on "How to Cut Your Greenhouse Emissions" in the July, August & September issues certainly stirred up some controversy. One good thing about that is that it clearly demonstrated that the simplistic solutions often bandied about in the popular press are not workable. Making large cuts to greenhouse gases is neither easy nor simple.

Much of the controversy stirred by Peter Seligman’s articles revolved around his conclusion that electric cars were not a useful approach when most of the power stations are coal-fired, as they are in Australia. Quite a few people disagreed but went on to quote figures drawn from overseas sources where the power generation mix is quite different to here. Even so, there have been disagreements about the estimated efficiency of electric vehicles. A representative letter in that vein is included in the Mailbag pages this month.

For our part, we are very attracted to the concept of electric vehicles and do believe that a modern electric car employing similar technology to the much vaunted Tesla Roadster would be quite successful. In fact, we think such cars should be on Australia’s roads in large numbers right now, in spite of the fact that they would ultimately draw their electricity from mostly coal-fired power stations. In any case, it is unlikely that any new power stations in Australia will be coal-fired. They are far more likely to be gas-fired since they are much more efficient and put out considerably less greenhouse gases for the electricity they generate. So with future Australian electricity supplies likely to be much cleaner, we should be planning for electric vehicles.

In the meantime, consider the potential advantages of electric vehicles if they were in Australia right now. In heavy traffic or on the open road, they generate no pollution at all. They would not contribute to Australia’s growing import bill for oil and petrol. When stopped, they are silent, apart from the possibility of a ventilation fan running. And when driving along the road, there is virtually no noise at all, apart from that generated by the tyres, suspension and any wind noise. That is a pretty attractive proposition. More importantly, such a car would require virtually no regular maintenance and very few visits to the local garage for costly service – no oil changes or engine service – just check the tyres and the water level for the windscreen washers. Now that is attractive.

Sure, batteries are an expensive component in an electric vehicle’s first cost but if NiMH or Lithium-ion batteries are used, they should last for many years. In fact, wear in the motor should be very low, so electric vehicles could be very long-lived.

Sadly, there are only a handful of electric cars on the road in Australia and to our knowledge, virtually all of these have been built by enthusiasts. In fact, the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) had a recent field day in Sydney and a number of such vehicles were on display. But sadly too, they were all far shy of what can be achieved with technology presently available in Australia. For example, they all used lead-acid batteries and DC motors (not brushless) without regeneration. Significantly too, most of them would be dicey in a major collision and none had air-conditioning.

By contrast, it would be possible to put together a consortium of Australian suppliers right now, to manufacture a world-class electric vehicle with good performance and range, able to accommodate four people and their luggage and with full crash safety. I wonder if any of our local car manufacturers is actually working on such a project right now. I hope so.

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