Every light vehicle manufacturer in the world is making an electric vehicle now, from Toyota to VW to Volvo to BMW. Tesla has overtaken Ford and GM in market capitalisation. Making electric vehicles is THE growth industry.
So it's good that Australia has one. A car that is, not an industry.
EVs in Australia are strictly amateur DIY, something we excel at, but hopeless if you want to mass produce a sustainable vehicle. We had one good go at it 10 years ago – great intentions, little government support, that failed in the end. This is that story.
Most advanced countries want to make EVs: for the intellectual knowledge in modern electronics and the quality and precision in manufacturing. In keeping with our status as the sustainability pariah of the world, we alone seem to want to discourage electric vehicles.
The government offers no interest or incentives; in the last election the government confirmed its addiction to ICE (internal combustion engines). In a crowded field of anti-sustainable statements by Dutton, Joyce, Christiansen et al, Michaelia Cash reached peak stupid by saying that an EV ute would never work, was the work of the devil and promised to protect the worker’s diesel belching ute
Compare her ridiculous haircut and kindergarten-teacher-talking-to-five-year-olds with Jacinda Ardern’s adroitness. No wonder there are more EVs in NZ than OZ. To help Michaelia Cash’s research assistant here is a picture of an EV ute in the USA (called a pickup).
Image 1: Rivian truck
US Car & Driver lists the Rivian as one of 6 EV pickups in the works: the GM EVPU, the Ford 150, the Tesla Cybertruck (Elon Musk should never name things, cars or children), the Lordstown Endurance, and the Bollinger B2. Not to mention that electric utes can work inside a building, just as thousands of fork-lifts already do.
It wasn't always so. Australia used to have an interest in innovation. This is a graph taken from a 1978 report on electric vehicles, written by a committee of experts drawn from universities, the CSIRO and business. It looked forward to 2025, and got it hopelessly wrong, but you have to admire the ambition.
The report was printed by the government printer and published by the AGPS, the Australian Government Printing Service. Both disappeared, along with the passion for innovation. The Federal Government no longer publishes reports into design and no longer supports manufacturing leaving it all to privatisation and DIY.
But Australia once had an electric car manufacturer: Blade EV, or BEV. In 2008 Ross Blade, an engineer, started making EVs by removing the ICE from new Hyundai Getz cars and installing the 3 parts an EV needs: an electric motor (35kW), batteries (lithium ferrous phosphate with a charging system) and a controller (to regulate the power from batteries to motor). The EV was called the Electron.
The car retained the interiors, suspension, brakes and safety features, even though it had to be crash tested to comply with Australian Design Rules. It was slower than the petrol original and had a range of 80 to a 100 km, but perfectly acceptable in Australian cities where 80% of all trips made by passenger vehicles are 80 kms or less.
The design was intended for fleet owners; orders came from the City of Melbourne and New Zealand, ordering 200 of them. It was dogged by performance and technical issues requiring many upgrades. The works, in Castlemaine in regional Victoria, made 54 EVs before folding in 2012.
Along the way it received a measly $120,000 in government assistance, but was snubbed by Anthony Albanese when, as Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, he refused to test 3 Blade vehicles offered as comparison to the three Mitsubishi iMiev’s the Government was already testing. Even the supposedly progressive ALP has a cultural cringe in matters of design and manufacturing.
Bernie Hobbs, ABC science presenter extraordinaire, was one of the early adopters and initially an enthusiastic owner, she said she loved the driving, quietness and the smoothness of the car, but the continual technical difficulties eventually drove her to sell the car. Automotive journalists love bad puns.
There have been talks in Castlemaine this year to revive the Blade EV car industry, but nothing has so far eventuated.
When mass vehicle manufacturing finally closed down, driven out by the Abbott government, we could have replaced them with an EV industry. Ford’s works on the outskirts of Melbourne, together with the co-located businesses of brakes, tyres, body parts, instrumentation and interior fit out manufacturers, offered an opportunity to set up a specialist area for manufacturing EV’s.
Sadly not so, but there is some positivity: the area now has a number of factories keeping alive Australia's manufacturing, including the first 6 Star Green Star factory / warehouse / office building built for Kingspan, the Irish-originated insulation company.
EV manufacturing continues today as a DIY activity: AEVA, the Australian Electric Vehicle Association was founded in 1973 and still grows. Members have converted all sorts of vehicles: MG TD sports cars, Bongo Vans, Citroen DS, VW Kombi van, Mercedes, Minis and Mokes all the way up to forklift capable of lifting 200 tonnes; all converted to run on electric powered batteries.
Ironically, in Australia we now have more people adapting vehicles (repairing old cars, limousine conversions, hot rods and rat rods, Concours d'Elegance restorations, EVs and more) in tiny workshops and DIY back yards than were ever employed in the factories of the big four companies. We have effectively driven the manufacturing of vehicles into men’s sheds.
EVs still have a rosy future in Australia. What a pity that almost all of it will be imported from overseas, much from China when our trade relations improve. There has been a huge lost opportunity for a local industry.
Finally, why the enthusiasm for EVs? It’s not all about sustainability. Drivers find them quicker, smoother, quieter and more comfortable, not to mention no longer being tempted by the sweets at the petrol station counter. One +one colleague has driven all manner of exotic cars in his designer life but says his BMW i3 is the one car he will never give up.
Once an EV is driven, you’ll never be an ICE addict again.
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact them at [email protected]