23 October, 2020   By: Byron Mathioudakis

Electric cars (EVs) aren’t coming - they’re already here, growing in popularity every year since the Mitsubishi i-MiEV quietly slipped onto the market in 2010.

Need proof? A decade on, while the rest of the new-vehicle market is down some 20 per cent, electric car sales have more than doubled. And they’re getting better, as the popularity of the Tesla Model 3 attests.

For many people, electric cars prompt many questions, debates, assumptions, misconceptions and even fears – not just about costs and range, but also about their impact on the environment, support and charging infrastructure.

So, we’re going to help you separate EV fact from fiction.

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They’re not really sustainable if you’re charging them from the electricity grid which still relies on coal-fired power stations.

This statement is partly true.

WA’s electricity generation mix changes daily but is typically less than 50 per cent powered by coal.

Over the 12 months to October 2020, 42 per cent of electricity was generated by coal, 42 per cent by gas, 14 per cent by wind, with solar rounding out almost all of the remaining two per cent.

In simple terms, where EVs are charged using electricity from the grid, some emissions are moved from the car’s exhaust pipe to the power station. Using renewable energy sources such as solar to charge an EV can help alleviate this.

Recent European research also indicates that EVs outperform diesel and petrol passenger vehicles across all electricity generation makeups, even on heavily carbon intensive grids.

It’s worth noting that in contrast to WA, nearly 95 per cent of electricity in Tasmania comes from renewables. Positively, fossil fuel reliance is edging down in WA though, and renewables are gaining ground.

Electric cars are too expensive to buy.

EVs have fewer moving parts and are mechanically far less complex than vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE).

But those big and heavy batteries contain rare and very expensive elements, and right now typically make up about half of the total cost of an EV, while a combustion engine makes up only a fraction of the price of the car it powers. As a result, EVs cost upwards of 20-50 per cent more overall.

However, battery technology is coming along in leaps and bounds to help reduce costs, aided by mass production. Since 2010, battery prices have fallen by nearly 90 per cent.

Adding to the cost of purchasing an EV in Australia, is the lack of government  incentives and tax breaks for electric cars, to help put them on the shopping list for car buyers – something many other countries have implemented successfully to increase their uptake.

Lithium batteries are dangerous and can catch fire.

While there have been some well-publicised incidents of EVs catching fire because of their battery packs going up in flames, these are isolated events.

Today’s EVs are manufactured to withstand extensive crash test procedures, with the batteries packed in highly protective structures designed to also manage their temperatures. Within these structures, individual battery cells have ‘kill’ switches to sever electricity paths, while the whole electrical system is designed to shut down completely to mitigate any chance of spark or fire, and can be done so manually by rescue services in the event of an incident.

Let’s not forget, too, that ICE vehicles have petrol or diesel tanks containing incredibly flammable material.

They’re not really sustainable because of the resources used in manufacturing the batteries.

This is correct because battery production is increasing exponentially to keep our modern and connective lives humming. It’s not just an EV issue. Everything we charge and recharge relies on batteries.

Lithium production for batteries, as with other mineral mining, can be extremely harmful to the environment when not managed appropriately. Toxic waste and excessive water requirements can wreak havoc on ecosystems and communities alike. We are however increasingly seeing battery manufacturers working to ensure their supply lines are sustainable and ethnical to reduce the impact.

And, coal, gas and oil production can also devastate environments in other, equally harrowing ways.

The batteries don’t have a long lifespan.

New-EV warranties guarantee batteries for about eight years/160,000km in most cases. After that time, it is expected that they lose about 30 per cent capacity. However, this level of durability is okay when compared to a mobile battery over the same period, which typically can result in more than 50 per cent degradation.

This is because most EV battery packs have special cooling properties to minimise capacity-loss, as well as software that stops overcharging or stone-dead depletion – both of which undermine their lifespan.

Additionally, EV batteries can be and are often recommissioned in less-taxing household or industrial energy storage situations once they finish their employ in EVs, so can have a significantly longer ‘second life’ that may last decades.

They’re only economical to run if you have solar panels to charge them.

Not true at all.

Solar panels can dramatically reduce the cost of running an EV – down to a fraction of the cost of an equivalently sized petrol or diesel vehicle.

However, solar panels still don’t come cheap in the first place, so these costs have to be factored in. Plus, at the time of publication, in Perth, the average price of electricity for residential properties is under 30 cents per kWh (kilowatt-hour), and under a dedicated off-peak EV plan, this can get down to under 20 cents per kWh.

Yet even at the higher rate, the cost per 100km is still about half of that of an ICE vehicle.

However, charging from your own solar panels at home reduces your vehicle’s CO2 footprint down to zero and costs nothing to charge.

They don’t have a big range on one charge.

Until a couple of years ago, only the $100,000-plus Tesla models possessed big-enough battery packs to provide sufficient real-world range that was enough to quell range anxieties. We’re talking in excess of 250km between charges, and often as much as 400km or more.

The rest, like the original Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 BEV, could barely crack 110km in real-world driving scenarios before requiring a long overnight recharge.

However, with battery prices falling, there have been bigger battery packs fitted to cheaper EVs, meaning that a $65,000 Hyundai Kona Electric can match a modern Tesla costing more than double or even three times its price and can go just as far on a single charge.

Furthermore, battery technology is advancing significantly, with some carmakers predicting that a 1000km-plus range between charges is only a couple of years away – though how much these will cost is still anybody’s guess.

Traditional ICE engines are getting more fuel efficient so why bother?

Yes, combustion engines are getting more efficient but not quickly enough to significantly reduce harmful emissions from vehicles in our State.

Car makers recognised years ago that EV development and uptake would be a very lengthy, costly and controversial endeavour, so most poured huge resources into engineering petrol and diesel engine technology that has slashed consumption and therefore emissions.

Along with stop/start technology, lighter components, better exhausts, cylinder cut-off and lean fuel burning capabilities, larger batteries, electricity regeneration technology that stores otherwise spent braking energy and improved aerodynamics, electrification assistance in the form of electric motors in hybrids have further improved engine fuel economy out of sight. However, we still have a way to go and EVs and hybrid vehicles are an important part of the mix of strategies required to drive down our vehicle emissions.

Such worthwhile improvements, along with cheap oil prices, means ICE vehicles will remain the dominant force for a while yet, although we are already seeing moves to ban new ICEs in many countries in the near future to improve air quality and combat climate change.

The maintenance costs are higher.

This is incorrect.

Electric motors basically need little to no maintenance throughout the life of the vehicle. EVs have substantially fewer parts and are actually cheaper to make in many cases than ICEs.

Furthermore, they don’t need oil, filters, spark plugs and the like.

That said, EVs still need regular maintenance for perishable items like brakes, tyres, suspension and steering components, auxiliary (12V) battery replacement, wiper blades, windscreens, air-conditioner servicing and fluid top-ups.

But, generally speaking, EVs should cost significantly less to maintain.

They don’t hold their value as well as traditional ICE engine vehicles.

Well, it depends on the EV.

As a general statement, it is the cheaper EVs which typically do not hold their value as well, whereas pricier EVs are better at holding their value.

As battery technology improves, many people – especially the early adopters attracted to EVs in the first place – are likely to wait for the latest thing. In this regard, EVs are similar to the constant evolution of smartphones and laptops.

EV sales are growing, demand is strengthening, and with more and more models coming on stream, more consumers are switching to electrification.

I have to buy an expensive charging device to charge it at home.

It's certainly an option but not essential. Most at-home chargers, or wall boxes as they’re known, typically range from about $950 to $3000 (although some more powerful chargers can cost $5000 or more), fitted, depending on the building and level of installation difficulty.

Portable charging cables also provide a more cost-effective option and can be plugged straight into a general power outlet, at home or on the go. Several EVs are supplied with these.

But wall boxes are worth it for the sheer convenience and more-rapid charging speeds they offer. An overnight plug-in should have your EV back up to full charge. If you have solar panels, their initial costs should be offset in just a few years by the cheaper electricity savings as well.

A wall box’s cost depends on how powerful it is too, with most being in the 7.4kW to 22kW range.

Note that some EV dealers will throw in a wall box installed as part of the deal, so haggle!

EVs take a long time to charge even on the fastest chargers.

There are many variables here, but basically the bigger your EVs battery, the longer the charge.

Using an upgraded 15-amp household outlet (like the one needed for an air conditioner or oven install), small battery EVs like an older Nissan Leaf with a 24kWh battery should take up to eight hours from empty to full, but a Tesla Model S with 100kWh can take up to 30 hours-plus.

A wall box will slash that down to a few hours, while a public charging station can add a couple of hundred kilometres in around 30 minutes, very broadly speaking.

The thing to remember is that an EV can be plugged in overnight like a mobile phone. It’s a habit that should be easy to learn.

There aren’t many charging stations around WA.

The number of chargers is increasing. Most cities and towns throughout WA have somewhere to charge a vehicle – that is, a mains socket with at least 15 amps, including some caravan parks, council buildings, carparks, hotels and motels. A quick search for ‘Where to charge your EV in WA’ should reveal these locations on a map.

The RAC Electric Highway® currently offers 12 locations in Perth and the South West with publicly accessible EV fast-charging DC stations supported by the Chargefox network. Complemented by at least 16 other fast chargers, and numerous destination chargers, the number continues to grow across the State.

An app will show you where these are as well as whether they’re available or not.

Additionally, traditional petrol stations are starting EV charger trials in regional areas throughout Australia, mirroring the vast growth of similar set-ups in many other countries.

Fitting a charger can be difficult and/or expensive in apartment blocks.

Nowadays, most modern apartments design their dedicated parking areas to include EV charging outlets.

However, if this isn’t the case with older dwellings, there are a handful of companies that provide installations, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $5000 or more depending on the size of the charger, available space, electricity access and many other variables.

EVs are so quiet they’ll harm people and animals who don’t hear them coming.

Some EVs have an acoustic vehicle alert system of some sort, which can help make vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, aware that there’s an EV in the vicinity.

Beyond 20km/h, tyre, road and wind noises are deemed sufficiently audible and are on a par with ICE vehicles travelling at the same velocity.

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