WE recently bought a new car. By “new”, I mean a 2013-model car that replaced a 2007 model. Still, the leap in technology in six years was significant. A reversing camera, sensors, cruise control and so on. In the five years since my “new” car was built, things have gone more science-fiction — my favourite example being “parking assist”, when a car effectively parks itself.

Infrastructure Victoria released a report this week on driverless cars and the usually restrained agency started with this line: “Automated and zero emissions vehicles may be the biggest shift in transport since the car, itself.”

The first cars created in the 1800s were described as “horseless carriages”, much like we are now talking about “driverless cars”.

Initially, they were for wealthy people, but gradually became more accessible over time. While driverless cars are some way off, Infrastructure Victoria discusses the impact of zero emissions vehicles, which emit no exhaust fumes, the most common of which are electrically charged, and which are already on the roads.

The aim of electric cars is to reduce pollution, but the advantages of not having to pay for petrol or diesel is likely to be a significant factor in consumer decision-making once prices come down further. If consumers can afford the upfront costs, of course. In a recent podcast with energy giant AGL, Vinnes policy director Gavin Dufty says when technology shifts, the people with resources “buy their way out” while others are left to foot the bill for old stuff.

He mentioned the growing gap for the haves and have nots in the property sector, which can lead to disparity in the energy market.

For example, renters pay more than the homeowners who can afford solar panels, because retail costs are higher. That is relevant to the advent of electric cars as well as driverless cars. If you have solar and don’t travel far, you can basically run a car for free.

In the Infrastructure Victoria report, one line stands out to me.

“Electric vehicles are expected to reach price parity with petrol/diesel vehicles between 2025 and 2030.” Like most things in this space, the pace of change can often be under or over-estimated. But high petrol costs are having a big impact on family budgets at the moment. A recent report said the average petrol costs per year are about $70 a week or $3600 a year. That’s about double annual electricity bills.

Hip-pocket costs will drive change, of course. If things change more quickly than forecast, then as the Infrastructure Victoria report points out, this could impact on the energy generation needed to fuel electric cars.

One of the major power stations in Victoria, Yallourn, is on its last legs and the forecast for closure, according to the report, is 2032.

Many experts predict it will be much sooner than that.

If there’s a need for more generation with fewer peak-demand suppliers, the energy sector could be headed for even more turmoil. That means we’ll need some brave decisions.

Part of the Infrastructure Victoria report looked at costs of adapting the energy network if more electric vehicles were being charged.

It estimates $2.2 billion in network upgrades would be needed.

That could be paid for by energy users or governments, much like the wind and solar farm subsidies associated with the Victorian Renewable Energy Target.

Which brings in the role of governments once again.

The hardest part in all this forecasting is factoring in the calamitous state of politics in this country and its impact on the energy sector.

Political advantages seized over one aspect of energy policy, then scrapped or altered later on, have had a big cost.

The widening ideological battle in this space looks likely to get only worse.

In other words, if you were an economist and asked to pick a low-, medium- or high-risk scenario, you would almost put in a fourth option above the “high”.

Let’s hope the next decade won’t be like the past one that’s led to higher costs for all.

Meanwhile, I just hope this car lasts us long enough to get to where most people are seriously thinking about going: electric. Or even driverless.

Extracted from Herald Sun