Clearing the air for light EVS on Australia’s congested roads

Photo Credits: Aleksandr Popov

You don’t have to go far to see just how carbon-intensive our transport has become. Stand on any street corner at rush hour and the evidence is right in front of you: large SUV after large SUV, 2,500kg hunks of metal powered by gas-guzzling V6 engines, most of them ferrying a single person to work.

As new reports suggest we’ll struggle to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees, we continue to show blind faith in combustion engines as the only civilised way to take us where we’re going.

Right now, that seems to be rapidly downhill. In the 12 months to March 2023, Australia’s transport emissions rose by 6.4%, driven by booming sales of utes and SUVs, which together accounted for 55% of all new vehicle sales. The fact that the proportion of SUVs has almost doubled in the past decade shows a looming disconnect between our concern for the climate and our personal comfort.

Total New Vehicle Sales in Australia - Source: Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries

But dig a little deeper and there’s some room for hope. During 2023, 87,217 electric vehicles were bought in Australia – representing 7.2% of new vehicle sales, compared to just 3.1% in 2022. Earlier this month, the Government released a consultation paper on its long-awaited New Vehicle Efficiency Standard (NVES), which will set a maximum amount of CO₂ per kilometre that new cars can emit when it comes into force in January 2025. The limit will apply to the fleet of new cars that each manufacturer sells, penalising those who go over their limit, and enabling regulators to tighten emissions cuts over time. The Government has proposed three options, from a “slow start” NVES that softens the blow for manufacturers, to a “fast start” that would promote much speedier uptake of EVs and hybrid cars.

However, the initial NVES options only cover passenger cars and light commercial vehicles up to 4.5 tonnes, and exempt large trucks, industrial and agricultural vehicles, and – sadly – motorcycles.

Switching to two wheels

At Savic Motorcycles, we’d love to say that everyone should just switch their old gas-guzzling car for a C-Series and we’d all save bucketloads of carbon (and cash). While this is true, it’s not going to help you transport your family, or go away for the weekend, or carry your shopping home. If you’re wealthy, of course, you can have an electric car in the garage, an e-motorcycle for the daily commute (and fun on weekends), and an e-bicycle for trips to the shops. But the reality is: we’re not all wealthy, and the planet won’t wait for us to get our transport mix in order.

Rider patiently waits on their phone while their C-Series electric motorcycle charges at a public charging station - Perth

Providing a vehicle efficiency standard will encourage more manufacturers to sell EVs in Australia, giving us greater choice (the EU currently has nearly 200 EV models, compared to our 70), reducing fuel prices, and slashing CO₂ and other pollutants that warm the atmosphere and damage our health.

Marion Terrill, who runs the Transport and Cities Program at the Grattan Institute, says that when it’s legislated, the fuel efficiency standard will be a “gamechanger”.

“There’s a patchwork of subsidies out there, but they all have such a high cost of abatement that we have to have an NVES – a carbon price for cars and light vehicles – to really change things,” she says. “My view is that we want people to be able to get where they’re going for the least cost – both financially and environmentally.

“Right now, Australia needs to make it more attractive for overseas manufacturers to send their products here. That’s why we need the NVES – and it will be a gamechanger.”

Source: Cleaner, Cheaper to Run Cars: The Australian New Vehicle Efficiency Standard Consultation Impact Analysis, February 2024

Miles behind Europe

While 2023 has been a good year for Australian EV sales, we’re still – at just over 7% of new car sales – miles behind a global average that hovers near 20%. While our authorities continue to weigh up rebates and tax breaks that knock a few thousand dollars off new EV prices, China has cut their entire purchase tax for new EVs, while Norway – where 88% of cars bought last year were EVs – exempts them from registration and VAT, halves their road tax, and throws in free parking and ferry fees.

France, another EV pioneer, has developed a comprehensive ‘environmental score’ for all cars (which factors in their material, build and delivery emissions), gives EV owners incentives like free parking and special road lanes, and provides purchase subsidies of up to €7,000 for less well-off families.

Means-tested subsidies are vital to put electric vehicles within everyone’s reach, according to Professor Hussein Dia, who as Professor of Future Urban Mobility at Swinburne University is one of our leading transport thinkers.

“The Government needs to be more ambitious and transparent with its NVES plans,” says Professor Dia. “The current plan sets no targets for EV adoption, no roadmap for phasing out petrol and diesel cars, and no incentives to help poorer families afford an EV.

“And motorcycles have been completely excluded from the standard – which is hard to understand as they are not perceived to be difficult to decarbonise in the same way that heavy vehicles are.”

Following Asia’s example

Professor Dia says the Australian Government should take a leaf from the EV strategies of Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, which are rapidly fast-tracking public charging infrastructure, domestic battery production, and battery-swap schemes – or “battery ATMs” – where you can switch your used motorcycle battery for a charged one.

“Of course, there are millions more motorcycles in Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand, but I still think it’s very disappointing that we’re so far behind these countries when it comes to innovative ways to encourage consumers to switch to electric vehicles,” he says.

While several Australian states are making EVs more attractive through stamp duty waivers and registration discounts, we’re clearly still a long way behind the mature markets of Europe and the new “electric superpowers” of Asia.

“[Climate Change and Energy Minister] Chris Bowen seems very serious about climate change, so hopefully we can expect more announcements on EVs in the near future,” says Prof Dia. “Our policies clearly need to be faster and more aggressive if we’re to stop falling behind the rest of the world.

“As well as pollution taxes, there are other measures we should be considering, like ride-sharing, car-sharing, and congestion charges – which encourage people not to drive alone, to shop locally, and to do more work from home.”

Perhaps one day in the future, standing on a street corner in downtown Australia will not be such a congested experience – and the air will be a little easier to breathe.

Bibliography & further reading

Ralph Johnstone

Ralph is a seasoned writer and journalist, with more than 30 years’ experience as a reporter, editor and technology writer on five continents. He’s been writing about the C-Series since it was “the framework of a brilliant idea” back in 2019.