Michael Wadsley, 19 November 2015

THE most frequent question asked about electric vehicles is how far they go between charges.

We have a plug-in electric/petrol hybrid so range is not an issue for us. We have driven from Hobart to Canberra. Twice. We use the delivery infrastructure that provides petrol at retail outlets across the country.

For us the question is how far we can travel all-electric. We can do all our shopping and business, recharging at base — our home, where every power-point is a charging station.

However, the further from home we travel beyond our all-electric range, the more petrol we use.

For battery electric cars that run only on electricity, charging infrastructure is much more important. A network of charging points, each within range of another is required across the state and nation. This is feasible.

A charging network for Tasmania would cost about $1 million, less than the cost of one new petrol service station.

However, the existence of a charging network is only part of the issue. The speed of charging is also important.

For electric cars to be convenient, the charging process needs to be reduced to a length of time a driver is likely to usefully spend near the charging point.

When travelling point-to-point, an intermediate recharging time should be about that required for a short break, such as having a coffee.

When touring, recharging could include the time needed to view local points of interest.

The Tesla battery electric car has a range over 300km. Tesla fast-charging points installed at Goulburn, in NSW, and Wodonga, in Victoria, allow 80 per cent recharging in about 30 minutes, giving a Sydney to Melbourne journey with acceptable stop times.

With a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, charging issues are different to those of a battery-only electric vehicle.

For our plug-in hybrid, the charging points need to be at locations where the vehicle is likely to be stopped for a significant time.

Otherwise, the driver has a choice of interrupting a journey for an extended time of up to four hours to obtain up to 50km petrol-free motoring or to continue on the journey using petrol. For most drivers the decision is to use petrol.

Charging a car at a carpark, shopping centre or workplace is practical, given the electricity cost is a third of the equivalent amount of petrol.

Hobart City Council is about to trial chargers in a city carpark. This will be very useful to vehicle owners.

The manufacturer of our plug-in hybrid made a marketing decision not to include a fast-charging option in vehicles released in Australia.

The fast-charger allows about 80 per cent charging in 30 minutes, compared to three hours minimum in our vehicle’s configuration. Given Australia did not have a charging network as exists in Europe and Japan, this was logical.

However, as a charging network is rolled out here, the fast-charging option should be included in new models and retrofitted to older models.

In the meantime, owners of our model plug-in hybrid would not bother to plug-in during a coffee break while touring, unless exceptionally convenient because the vehicle would only take on board electricity worth a few minutes’ all-electric driving.

The other interesting design decision for our plug-in hybrid was not to include a spare wheel, despite marketing the vehicle as a 4WD.

Australia is unlike Europe and Japan in that urban centres are rarely exposed to ice and snow where 4WD is useful.

In Australia, 4WD tends to be useful in remote locations where mobile phone coverage is problematic and a damaged tyre would be a major concern.

Luckily, external spare tyre carriers are available. Ours attaches to the tow bar and enables us to visit national parks with confidence.

The hybrid is as easy to drive as any automatic, but has some handling features of a manual because the regenerative braking slows the car going into corners or down hills while putting electricity back in the battery.

The level of regenerative braking can be selected at any time by the driver.

Switching between electric and petrol and back is so smooth you are only aware it is happening by glancing at the dashboard graphics.

Going into four-wheel drive is just the push of a button.

If needed, a hybrid has real power and acceleration, as it automatically combines the electric and petrol capabilities.

We often take our hybrid to Mt Field National Park, including once towing a trailer of firewood for a hut near Lake Dobson.

Reversing the trailer up a narrow, bush track was effortless with no revving engine or smoking clutch, just a smooth, silent, no-fuss job.

Electric motors have torque at all speeds. On the way downhill, with the empty trailer, the regenerative braking slowed us and fully charged the battery before reaching the park entrance.

Owning an electric vehicle brought us into contact with like-minded people, some of whom are happy electric-vehicle owners.

We recently formed a state branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association, a nationwide group that shares information and promotes the benefits of converting cars, trucks, buses and trains to electricity.

We held a public forum at the branch’s launch in August and had an electric-vehicle display at the Sustainable Living Festival.

It is clear from the many questions and conversations there is pent-up demand for smaller and/or less expensive electric cars.

There is also frustration with the Federal Government because it does not seem interested in facilitating the availability of electric vehicles.

In Norway a third of new car sales are electric vehicles, encouraged by government incentive, including no sales tax.

Australia imports most of its liquid transport fuel, mainly from South-East Asian refineries in foreign-crewed ships and hence is exposed to price-hikes, supply-disruption and carbon-reduction risks. Tasmania is at the end of the supply chain and hence is most exposed.

Tasmania produces its electrical energy from zero-carbon, renewable hydro and wind energy.

Consequently, the island stands to reduce risk and improve its economic situation by moving to electric vehicle transport powered by locally generated electricity.

Michael Wadsley is a founding member of the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

Extracted in full from The Mercury.