Charging network Evie says ride-hailing services can provide clues as to how Australia can make the switch to electric vehicles.

Do you like the smell of petrol? What about mechanics’ repair bills? There are plenty of things drivers (and passengers) won’t miss about automobiles propelled by internal combustion engines. Knowing that electric vehicles are destined to replace cars – after what will be painful separation for some owners – the young businesses that want to serve drivers of EVs are pegging out their patches.

At fast-charge infrastructure company Evie Networks, CEO Chris Mills is trying to work out “how do we build a network that gives people confidence to make the change.”

So far, he’s pretty certain about 80% of charging will be done at home, where drivers will plug in overnight to fill up on cheap grid power. Public chargers will mostly be used for top-ups, so the concept of siting publicly available fast-charging boils down to convenience. To Mills, designing tomorrow’s auto-energy infrastructure means satisfying Evie’s three “customer experience criteria”: give them easy access, good lighting and security, and, something to do.

Plug in and wander off

Chris Mills is taking the pulse of ride-hailers.

Easy access means keeping chargers outside boom gates, for instance, so drivers don’t have to navigate multi-storey car parks. “They are inconvenient,” Mills says. “You’ve got to take a ticket at the boom gate, drive around, fight the traffic and eventually find the charging station.”

Drivers also need to feel safe in the big city, so charging stations should be well-lit and welcoming if drivers are expected to feel secure while they are delayed 10-20 minutes for a top-up. Mounting chargers in shadowy concrete corners won’t do. “Multi-storey car parks at 2am are dark and lonely places,” he says.

As for amenity, it simply means not allowing drivers to get bored. Sites that are on ground-level near shopping centres, local retail, quick-service food and essential coffee have good credentials for fast-charging gear. “You don’t need to be with your car when it’s charging,” Mills says. “You can lock it up and walk away. You can go off and do something.”

Evie is also looking at Uber for clues. Shared EVs may become ambassadors for the transition, Mills says, where ride-hailers who enjoy a calm, quiet cruise in an EV question their allegiance to pistons and spark plugs when $35,000 electric cars come onto the market. Evie owns a fleet of EVs it lets out to Uber drivers for this purpose and to help it understand charging and the EV experience. “We get to see the state of charge of the batteries and where they do their trips, which informs us of likely places they will need a charge,” Mills says. “We are painting a picture where we can see how we can promote the take-up of electric vehicles.”

So far Evie has learned that Uber drivers are looking for reliable, inexpensive cars and a fast-charge network designed for convenience.

Can you give us a lift?

We’re going to be seeing a lot more of these.

In early August Evie and three other companies – Chargefox, Ampol, Engie and Electric Highways Tasmania – attracted $24.55 million in funding towards 403 fast-charging stations to be built in cities and regions around the country, as part of the first round of the federal government’s $71.9 million Future Fuels Fund. Each station must accommodate at least two cars at 50kW or more. Evie will receive $8.85 million for the delivery of 158 fast-charging stations.

The EV business is a growth industry, no doubt – and it’s competitive. Evie doesn’t know where the other funded companies are planning to install chargers (apart from presuming Ampol will use its existing service stations), and all of them have to negotiate leases for space and source power. Evie is purchasing Large-scale Generation Certificates to offset carbon in electricity that supplies its chargers. As its network grows Mills expects it will buy direct from wind or solar generators via power purchase agreements. “There is no point having green chargers that are supplied with brown energy.” ARENA grant funding also requires that clean energy is used.

Charging sites will have to be safe and convenient, but they will also have to be well-supplied with electrons. “There isn’t a lot of spare capacity floating around,” he says, referring to patches of congestion in urban networks. “You’ve got to look for those locations where there is enough load … that allows the site host to do all the things they want to do and allows you to do what you want to do.” There are some city locations, he says, where surplus solar makes a good match for daytime charging.

The passing parade

Mills admits he doesn’t drive an EV, although he does travel “electrically” – on a train. When the lease runs out on his family car, he says it will be time to buy an EV. “There are some good models coming out,” he says. Three things need to happen before there is sustained take-up of EVs in Australia: public charging networks are developed to reassure drivers, new EV models pop up on sales yard forecourts and prices come down.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we only had about 15 battery electric vehicle models available to buy in Australia,” Mills says. “And all but five of them were over $70,000.” In some countries the silent minority is slowly turning mainstream, and the effects are being seen here with new models entering the market from MG and Chinese battery giant BYD. If Canberra ever sets a target for EV sales, as many governments in the developed world have, more models will be paraded here.

There will also be a point where carmakers will decide it’s hardly worth making petrol-powered cars for right-hand drive markets (Japan, Malaysia, the UK, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia) where there is no EV target (South Africa and Australia). Soon after announcing in 2020 that it would stop making Holdens, General Motors also declared it would no longer make right-hand drive vehicles. Australia accounts for about 4% of new car sales.

Aristotle, Ptolemy, autonomy

Mills guesses a tipping point for mass-market adoption could be a decade away. Anyway, is car ownership over-rated? Private cars are used probably less than an hour a day, whereas an Uber vehicle will be on the road up to 12 hours a day. Autonomous vehicles, long hoped for and long-promised, will enter the traffic flow one day. When they do, all that we know about private transport will be rewritten.

In many respects, we’re ready for them. Ride-hailing works and is widely used. Autonomous vehicles will be summoned the same way – via a smartphone app. Around the world young people are delaying sitting for diver’s licences, if they choose to learn to drive at all. As autonomous vehicles pop up in our rear-view mirrors in a decade or so, Mills says, “people will ask, why do I need a car?”

During an energy conference hosted by Credit Suisse this year Mills shared a panel with two lithium miners on the impact EVs might have on demand for the metal, which is used in batteries. As discussion wound up, the mediator asked the three for a stock tip each. The two miners suggested lithium players, but Mills went for Sims Metals. In a decade or so, he figures, shares in the listed scrap metal merchant will be going bananas as it retrieves raw materials from all the cars about to be taken off the road.