The number of electric cars is rising rapidly. A betting person might even predict that the electric vehicle will eventually do for motoring what the digital camera did for photography and Netflix-type video streaming services have done for home entertainment.
There are still only 4200 purely electric vehicles in New Zealand, but registrations of them have mushroomed from only 32 in 2013, to 971 last year and to 1342 so far this year. This is exponential growth.
These are not hybrid vehicles, which use a combination of the internal combustion engine and a battery-powered electric-drive system. The figures quoted are for vehicles that use only battery-stored electricity to get around.
The number of electric cars is still tiny – New Zealand has just under 4 million registered vehicles overall – but the technology is getting better and cheaper all the time.
The global investment bank UBS predicts the “total cost” of owning an electric car will drop to that of a petrol vehicle next year, creating a tipping point for demand. It believes electric cars will make up 14 per cent of global car sales by 2025. UBS calls the electric car “the most disruptive car category since the Model T Ford”.
These forecasts put into context a National Party announcement on Saturday that set an “ambitious” target to have one third of the Government’s vehicle fleet powered by electricity in 2021.
National’s spokespeople for climate change issues and transport, Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges respectively, said their party’s government would “lead by example” towards reaching a national target of 64,000 electric vehicles in four years.
In fact, the target for the Government fleet, which amounts to about 5200 out of a total of 15,500 vehicles, is not ambitious at all.
National’s announcement exempted all electric vehicles from road user charges, but only until the end of 2021. Roading authorities will be allowed to approve measures to let them into bus lanes, but this is not guaranteed.
A truly ambitious policy on plug-in electric vehicles might look like Norway’s – a country that has a population of 5.2 million people – compared with New Zealand’s 4.8m.
Norway already has 110,000 plug-in electric vehicles and electric cars make up 40 per cent of all new registrations. Electric cars are exempt from a 25 per cent sales tax, have no motorway tolls, can be driven in bus lanes and are topped up at plentiful recharging stations.
Electric cars make sense in New Zealand because of our abundant and renewable hydro-electricity supply. Their emissions output is one-fifth of conventional cars.
But we are still years away from the point where electric cars are the norm – not least because we keep our existing vehicles for an average of 14 years and true mass production of electric replacements is quite a way off.
Our heavy dependence on Japanese used car imports will also hold us back. Japan has been relatively slow on the uptake of electric vehicles, meaning only 150,000 have ever been registered there. This means that few electric cars are available from this source.
But once the brakes come off, expect our motoring habits to change quickly. Policy-makers should start thinking now about what a really ambitious future strategy for electric cars might look like.