In 2021, people’s interests are broader. People are interested in sustainability, new technology which hasn’t been done to death, and greener topics such as how we can have a lesser impact on the planet doing the things that we do every day.
This is certainly my interest; last year my partner and I bought a house and one of the first things that we did – apart from getting fibre NBN hooked up – was investing in a solar system for the roof. Since that time we have consistently generated significant amounts of energy every sunny day that we have, and it feeds back into the grid. Not only does this help us save on our energy bill, but it also helps us make a little bit of a difference for the planet as well, for every kilowatt hour of energy that we get from the sun, that’s one less kilowatt hour that needs to be generated in a power plant somewhere else.
The reality is though, like virtually many other Australian households at the moment, whatever impact we can make it home with solar power, we are still a family that has two cars. In our case, one of them is diesel and one of them is unleaded. Running two cars – even though we don’t use them both every day – does have an impact, not only in terms of the pollution that this use puts out, but also the financial impact of having to fill up with petrol every week or other week.
The next logical step is an electric vehicle, but unfortunately in Australia – in 2021 especially – electric vehicles are still outside the reach of the average Australian family. They are too expensive, and the vehicles that are on the more affordable end, usually don’t have the features that you would get in a comparable priced conventionally powered petrol car.
It is for this reason that I wanted to try out some electric vehicles and actually see what they would like to drive, how practical they were for a young family, and whether they could meet the needs of our work and recreational time.
There have been hybrid vehicles in Australia for many years now, including the infamous Toyota Prius, but it really isn’t that much of a electric vehicle if you think about it. For the most part above a certain speed, the Toyota Prius is a conventional petrol powered car like any other. It only uses electric power at low speeds and for limited periods, noting that it only has a small battery capacity, and you can’t actually charge it from a PowerPoint – it only recharges through operation of the conventional petrol powered engine.
The other thing about the Prius of course is that it is a very small car, a very basic car, and some would say just not a very nice car.
For this reason hybrid cars have not really caught my attention, they are too pricey, and offer very little benefit over a traditionally petrol powered car – they really feel more like a buzzword, or something that people have if they want to show that they’re environmentally conscious, even though they don’t actually make a big difference.
When Tesla introduced its range of electric vehicles into Australia a few years ago now, they were – and remain – a very expensive option against the previous range of available hybrid vehicles. However, that hasn’t stopped Tesla from building a large fan base in Australia, and their vehicles are becoming increasingly common on Australian roads.
Fast forward to 2021, and Tesla has a lot of competition for electric vehicles. There are electric vehicles on the market for Mitsubishi, Hyundai, MG, mini, BMW and Audi to name but a few, and yet all of these electric vehicles haven’t gained quite so much interest in the marketplace as those from Tesla.
What is it about the Tesla electric vehicle it makes it so fascinating? Well, earlier this month I took one for a spin for three days, to find out what the fuss was about, but also to see how they fit into a few days of a typical Australian family’s needs.
The first thing that you notice about stepping into a Tesla Model 3 after having driven any other kind of vehicle whatsoever, is just how sparse the interior cabin actually is. There is literally nothing beyond a steering wheel, the centre touchscreen which operates virtually everything inside the vehicle, four seats, some seatbelt‘s, and the moon roof.
You don’t control your air conditioning with the traditional knobs and buttons, for example, there are no dials on the radio, I couldn’t find a cigarette lighter / power adapter (but there probably was one somewhere) and there were no traditional air conditioning vents that you can adjust by hand – this, and just about everything else about the vehicle, was adjusted through an iPad style touchscreen which is mounted between the front seats where you would normally find the radio and air conditioning controls.
On first appearances, this was very daunting.
Over the last 20 years I have become so accustomed to driving vehicles that have a radio, air conditioning controls, a gear lever, a handbrake, even keys – the Tesla Model 3 doesn’t have keys, or a keyhole, or a gear lever, handbrake, or anything else really that a normal car would be expected to come with.
So intimidating was the initial appearance of the vehicle, that my comment to the chap who was handing it over to me was that I was terrified to take this thing for a drive! My fear went nowhere when he said that the car was already running and all I needed to do to drive off or simply put on my seatbelt and press the accelerator. There was no outward sign of the vehicle was doing anything, there was no engine idling in the background, there were no fumes pouring out of the rear end, if anything the car was simply sitting there.
Ready to go, making no noise, patiently waiting.
With a gentle press on the accelerator, the Tesla Model 3 leapt into life. And when I say leapt, it didn’t really do anything – it just started moving. There was no noise, no vibration, no real indication of anything happening at all except for the perception of forward movement as the vehicle rolled towards the edge of the warehouse, and towards the driveway.
At this point, the Tesla behaved like just about any other vehicle. It moved forward when you push the accelerator, it slows down when you take your foot off the accelerator, and it has four wheels and goes on the road – like any other car.
The big difference though, in case it wasn’t already increasingly obvious, is that the Tesla doesn’t have an internal combustion engine. It doesn’t use petrol, it doesn’t use diesel, it doesn’t use liquid petroleum gas, it doesn’t use any of these fossil fuels – it just uses an electric battery and a couple of electric motors.
This might sound pretty obvious because everybody knows that Tesla’s are electric vehicles, but until you’ve actually driven one you don’t appreciate just how different this is. There were many occasions when I remarked to others, and thought to myself, that driving a petrol car feels like something out of the 1900s.
It really did feel like a quantum leap in how we move around our cities.
The biggest concern I had driving the Tesla was not how it handles, how it looked, how it sounded, or anything like that at all. My only concern was how I would charge this thing up – it requires an awful lot of electricity to fill up the battery, and being the owner of a typical Australian house that has single-phase power, and no 15 amp sockets lying around, we would be left charging this electric vehicle overnight using a standard 10 amp wall socket.
Without having done any research whatsoever, I wasn’t sure that we would actually be able to charge the car up completely overnight – the battery capacity is 50 or so kWh, and to charge it from flat would’ve taken in excess of 24 hours I’m sure.
As it happens, though, I needn’t have worried. A full day of driving on the first day after picking up the car at 9 am only reduce the battery capacity to about 65%. When I plugged in the vehicle that night to our 10 amp wall socket, it gave me an estimate of approximately 10 hours to fully charge the battery. Given that it was sitting in our driveway doing absolutely nothing otherwise, there was no reason not to leave it plugged in and it drew a steady 2.4 kW of power overnight, and fully charged itself ready to go again the next morning.
On that second day, we drove quite a bit more, from our home on Sydney‘s northern outskirts to Parramatta, around the city, back home, And even for a drive up the freeway for something to do before returning home later that evening. Even with all this driving, the battery capacity had only reached about 59%, and again it was charged up by the following morning without any difficulty whatsoever.
On Wednesday, my work took me down to Sydney’s south coast, to a sleepy coastal town called Wollongong, which was a good drive from home. I was somewhat concerned that if I was unable to find somewhere to recharge while I was there, I might not make the distance back home.
Good thing was I was working at a place that had a Tesla destination charger in their visitor car park, which was hooked up to a 50 kW rooftop solar system at their campus, which meant that not only could I charge the Tesla at a very fast speed, but it also used precisely no electricity from the grid at all. The vehicle was recharged from about 40% to full in the space of two hours, all from the power of the sun.
I found this truly remarkable – ordinarily, I drive to Wollongong and back would use maybe a 3rd to half a tank of petrol, depending on traffic, vehicle speed, how many people are in the car, etc. That much fuel would typically cost anywhere between $30-$40, whereas charging up with the power of the sun cost me precisely nothing, but more than that, it didn’t cost the office where I was working anything either.
While electric vehicle might need to be charged every night, or while it’s certainly a good practice to do so, you might think that this would be expensive – but it really isn’t. If you use approximately a third of your electric vehicle’s battery in your driving around each day, you may need to fill up somewhere between 10 to 20 kWh of capacity overnight. When you consider that the average kilowatt hour of electricity might cost you somewhere between 15c and 25c, it’s very easy to see that you’re charging overnight actually doesn’t cost very much at all, maybe three or four dollars.
If you decide to invest in an electric vehicle, there’s a good chance that you will invest in a proper charger, or a three-phase charger, or at least getting a 15 amp socket installed, all of which will allow you to charge your car much faster than a standard 10 amp wall socket.
The good news is, none of these things is particularly expensive, and none of them cost you any more – really – than by charging up using any other means. While you may only get anywhere between 300 and 400 km out of a battery charge, the reality is most Australians don’t drive that far every day, most people probably only drive up to 30 or 40 km per day, and if that is you then your charging requirements overnight might only be 5, 10 or maybe 15 kWh, and that’s going to cost you precisely bugger all.
Over the space of a week, you may use $30-$35 worth of electricity to power your electric vehicle, but in that same timeframe, your petrol vehicle may require anywhere up to $65-$70 worth of fossil fuel.
Of course, there is the convenience that if your fossil fuel powered vehicle runs low on fuel, you can stop into any one of the thousands of conveniently located refuelling stations virtually everywhere, and there is no issue with compatibility – most petrol stations carry diesel and unleaded fuel – and it doesn’t take very long to fill up either. The average vehicle can be re-fuel in about five minutes.
With an electric vehicle, however, there really is no five minute refuelling option. Your best case is that you are using a vehicle that is compatible with a high-powered electric charger, such as the Tesla supercharger, which can recharge your battery from low capacity such as 20% to around 80% in the space of about half an hour to 40 minutes.
The reality is though, to drive from Sydney to Canberra, you might make it on just one charge. But if you were driving from Sydney to Melbourne, there’s no way that you would make it in one charge, and you would need to factor into your drive time at least one, and probably to recharges. If you’re driving a Tesla, and have access to the supercharger network, then this probably isn’t a big deal. You can stop for lunch, stretch your legs, have a coffee, and enjoy some of the sights that the fairly boring drive between Sydney and Melbourne doesn’t have to offer, while your vehicle recharges.
However if you are not driving a Tesla, or you were driving somewhere where there are no superchargers, then your journey becomes much longer and much more complicated. Instead of being able to recharge in 40 minutes here and there, you might need to stop for a number of hours, and that’s assuming that you can find an electric vehicle charger that is compatible with your chosen vehicle.
Worst case scenario, if all you can find the 10 amp wall socket a motel where you stay overnight, you may need to take 12 hours off the road just to recharge your vehicle sufficiently to make it to the next part of your journey, and that 8 – 9 hour drive from Sydney to Melbourne could be looking an awful lot more like a three or four day journey.
This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why the adoption of electric vehicles in Australia really hasn’t taken off just yet. While we typically drive short distances day to day, it is also true that we like to drive longer distances on weekends and school holidays and other periods, and that to 300 km range which is fine for during the week, really isn’t that good for getting away on the weekend or going for a drive during holidays.
For this reason, I think the electric vehicle makes an awful lot of sense as a second car for a family, but at least for now, keeping a dinosaur powered car in the garage makes a lot of sense too. If you need to carry a lot of people or gear, you may find that a traditional vehicle office more options, and can go a greater distance. I remember about 10 years ago now my partner and I – before we had kids – drove from Sydney to the Gold Coast in one sitting, on one tank of diesel, with virtually no stops whatsoever apart from changing drivers a couple of times.
This would be impossible with an electric vehicle, at the very least you would need to have stopped once for about 45 minutes or so to top up the battery, and the likelihood is if you got stuck in traffic or you were carrying a bit more cargo – such as some kids in the back – you may need to have actually charged up twice.
I don’t think this bite self rules out an electric vehicle for long-term driving, but it certainly requires a lot more planning and a lot more forethought about where your next charge will come from, which is precisely the kind of anxiety you don’t have when driving a petrol powered vehicle.
For me, as I’ve said, the electric vehicle makes it off a lot of sense for a vehicle that you used during the week – for running the kids to school, to the office, to do your grocery shopping, and even for a quick drive up the freeway to watch the football team.
If you don’t do a lot of long distance driving, then potentially an electric vehicle may be your only vehicle, as it will comfortably drive from Sydney to Canberra, or from Sydney to the Central Coast, or even as far as Port Macquarie. Given that most Sydneysiders don’t tend to drive that far most of the time, it’s probably not a big deal.
Therefore, the only real reason not to buy an electric vehicle in 2021, sadly, is the price. The Tesla Model 3 which I drove has an OnRoad price of around $70,000, and the price tag puts it in the category of a luxury vehicle. It is definitely not a luxury vehicle.
Well it is true that it came with nice leather seats, plenty of storage in the boot, and even a bit of storage in the front under the hood, it is not the kind of vehicle that you would expect to see for $70,000. People associate a vehicle at that price with a mid-range BMW, an Audi, or even a Mercedes-Benz. People expect an awful lot of luxury for that price, and while the Tesla no doubt has some elements of luxury, it is nowhere near the same level of comfort or prestige as one of the three aforementioned vehicle brands.
Someone remarked to me when they saw that I was driving a Tesla, and found out the price, that for that price they could buy an awful lot of car that could do an awful lot more. I couldn’t help but think that they were right.
For me at least, I think an electric vehicle probably shouldn’t be much more than $40-$50,000, and that puts it in reach of the typical Australian family. The same family probably wouldn’t spend $60-$70,000 on what is ultimately a small sedan.
While I very much enjoyed my time with a Tesla Model 3, and I could very much see myself driving one on an ongoing basis, the reality is the price tag puts it out of my reach. Even if I could afford it, I’m not sure that I would want to pay that much for the car.
What it did do though was give me a glimpse of the future, a future that really isn’t that far away, a future where cars are quiet, clean, fast and simple – electric vehicles are often very cheap to maintain – and where the ubiquitous petrol station becomes less common, where the air is less polluted, and the roads are instead filled with cleaner, greener electric cars humming along their way.
Every time we see a vision of the future, we may remark that it resembles something from the children’s TV series The Jetsons, or maybe a smartwatch looks like something that Dick Tracy may have worn, and perhaps that’s just because I’m old, but it feels like that utopian vision of the future that we all had as kids isn’t really that far away, and every so often a new invention, or a new way of doing things, comes along and shows us a quantum leap forward in how things are done.
Personally, I cannot wait to be able to afford one electric vehicle and then in time to be able to replace both of our family’s cars with electric vehicles, as we – along with many others around the world – make the slow journey towards a renewable future, to extend the livability of our planet, to do things in a sustainable way, for a brighter future for us all.