Electric vehicles need their own infrastructure

Model TAlan Finkel recently wrote an opinion piece where he commented that “with the perspective of time we see a failure of imagination”. He was commenting that in the 1880’s the idea of electric street lighting seemed absurd and that today we face the same arguments around electric vehicles.

With new electric vehicle models coming on the market it is becoming clear that technology is reaching a tipping point. But is technology going to be enough for electric cars to dominate the road?

To understand the impediments that electric vehicles face it is worth going back in time, not to the 1880’s when gas lighting was beginning to dominate the streets, but to the turn of the last century when automobiles first began to be commercially manufactured.

The tipping point for car manufacturing was Ford’s Model T which took the automobile from a luxury good to a mass consumer good. In 1904 Ford manufactured 1,708 cars. By 1916, 533,921 cars were manufactured.

In addition to the actual car, drivers needed two things to be able to enjoy their new product; roads and petrol.

Today there are around 6,400 petrol stations scattered around Australia. This is down from a peak of 20,000. But a network of petrol stations wasn’t born overnight.

The first network of petrol stations in Australia was actually the Australian Motorists Petrol Company Ltd in 1936. Before that time distribution of petrol occurred through a variety channels. The first petrol stations were actually a side business for pharmacies in Germany. In Australia country pubs played a role as “filling stations’, taking on a role in transport that they had filled since the network of horse staging posts was established by Cobb and Co.

The point for electric infrastructure is that home delivery of petrol never really figured in the development of the automobile. At the moment however this is the principal mechanism available for electric vehicles. Without imagination, the lack of electric vehicle infrastructure will become the principal reason that could hold up electric vehicles.

There are a number of issues with home based electric infrastructure. The first is that it requires home ownership or enlightened landlords. In addition to buying an electric car, a driver has to install their own infrastructure. The issue is not just the cost, it is the evolution of technology. It is not yet clear how electric charging technology will evolve.  An electric driver can easily be left stranded with out-dated technology which can also be tied to a particular manufacturer. Specialist businesses are much better placed to manage this technology risk than households.

The second issue is around shifting living patterns. The growth of apartment living in particular is notable. Whilst there are examples of charging technology being installed in new apartment blocks, the cost of this technology is effectively paid by all building owners – whether or not they actually use the technology. There are also insurance implications around electric charging facilities that are still in the infancy of being addressed. This don’t stop the growth of electric vehicles, but it will make it harder for individuals to make their own choice. They will need to firstly consider whether their living arrangements can accommodate an electric vehicle.

The third issue is simply the number of cars that are not garaged in Australia but are parked on the street. You only have to drive down any street in a major city to see the number of cars that would struggle to be charged from a household connection.

So what are the options for electric infrastructure?

To understand where there may be opportunities we need to firstly understand the core difference between petrol stations and electric charging stations – and that is time.

With a petrol stations it is possible to fill up and be gone in a few minutes. For electric charging, although technology is changing the fasted charging options are still going to take 30 minutes.

The best opportunity for electric infrastructure is therefore where people park their cars for a period of time.

There are three opportunities that, with a bit of creativity could be developed; shopping centres, train stations and street parking.

It would be possible for instance for Westfield to develop part of its parking facilities to service electric vehicles on a pay for service basis.

Governments could also develop charging stations for electric vehicles at train stations.

There is the capacity that energy companies could offer street side charging. An option could be to trial this with local councils where a charging facility was placed on council land, aiming to overcome the ownership issues around housing and electric charging.

The early development of the automobile resulted in a fundamental changing in living patterns. It was also accompanied by the raft of rules and regulations on road use which we now take for granted.

We need to see electric vehicles as being not just about the car itself, but about the infrastructure. If we do that we can start to focus on all the elements we need to see a transition to electric vehicles.
Originally published LinkeIn Published on February 16, 2018

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