It’s impossible to be too assured about the best mix of charging infrastructure when EVs make up just 1% of new car sales, writes Adrian Kinderis. Networks and financiers can expect a scrape here and there as they work out the mix that best suits drivers.
Barely a day goes by without another vehicle brand announcing a new electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid. That, combined with announcements of sunset dates on the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by overseas jurisdictions, could lead one to think the switch to total EV motoring is only months away.
The truth is far more complex.
When replacing a technology that has been in place for over a century, the transition is always far from smooth. EV penetration of the Australian new vehicle market at the end of this year will be just over 1%. That is not to say that a change is not coming, just that it will be slower and patchier than most expect.
Many factors play into the disconnect between the talk and the action. First is the nature of new vehicle demand. The Australian market is now dominated (up to 75%) by SUVs and utes, yet there are no electric utes on the market and only a small number of electric SUVs.
In fairness, it’s a situation that manufacturers are focused on rectifying, particularly in the booming small- to mid-sized SUV market. However, the largest-selling vehicle in Australia for the past five years has been the Toyota Hilux, followed by the Ford Ranger.
Second, while the price premium demanded by pure EVs is slowly being reduced, we are still some years away from price parity.
Third are the linked concerns of charging infrastructure and range anxiety. Despite increasing battery range and remarkably short real-world travel distances, the perceived utility of being able to drive anywhere and fuel-up remains a barrier to entry to buying an EV.
There is some validity to that concern. That is why, to a greater or lesser extent, state governments have seen the need to provide some initial incentive to establish charging infrastructure. That’s an infrastructure role the governments routinely play. But again, it’s more complex than a cursory glance would suggest.
More than just boxes in busy spots
What sort of charging infrastructure is going to meet the needs of the majority of EV users? What will motivate greater numbers to switch to EVs? What is the business case for installation and maintenance? How do we move to a viable commercial model that offers close to the same utility as the ubiquitous petrol station? How do we make sure financial incentives are not wasted?
These are the questions that have been exercising our minds in the creation and establishment of the Linga Network. They are questions that are beyond the relatively superficial focus of sticking boxes in high traffic locations and hoping for the best.
Sure, an array of DC fast-charge boxes on a main highway may prove to be useful. However, they are very expensive and draw a great deal of power. Is that the sort of infrastructure that is sensible to install, right now, in a regional location? Or would a smaller AC charge point, for a fraction of the cost, combined with an intelligent user interface, do the job for occasional EV visitors?
Our discussions with local government authorities and regional businesses have identified a desire to provide charge points. But that desire is often accompanied by an obsession with DC fast-chargers that displays a lack of detailed understanding of what level of investment is justified and how to gain best value.
Expensive white elephants
As with petrol stations, the roll-out of EV charging infrastructure needs to be tailored to the location and need. Doubtless, as EV market penetration increases there will be opportunities to expand and improve installations. But a bigger-is-better approach could easily result in expensive white elephants.
Our view is that a considered, measured approach should guide the establishment of initial EV charging networks. An approach that maximises utility, that boasts smart user interfaces, that helps gather valuable information and that offers scope to use the infrastructure as a tool of attraction.
Big dumb boxes with no meaningful business case may serve no other purpose than to spend government incentives – all in one go. If they offer no intelligent user engagement, gather no useful data, don’t drive traffic and – ultimately – are superseded by rapidly improving battery range, they may end up as did 1960s-era four-pump petrol stations at the entry of every town now bypassed by an interstate highway.
Will the future of motoring outside of cities mean driving your EV from highway fast-charge station to fast-charge station? Or will a more flexible charging infrastructure emerge? One that offers a wider range of charging options, more suited to the way we like to explore regional Australia, rather than those rare, long-haul interstate trips.
To be very Aussie about it, DC may not be for everyone, AC may not suit all use cases, but the right AC/DC mix should get our EV world rocking.
Adrian Kinderis is founder and CEO of Linga Network.