You might have noticed electric vehicles are in the news these days. You might also be wondering what they are and whether you should buy one.
Which means now is a pretty good time to start understanding a bit more about the vehicle that is going to eventually replace the petrol and diesel-fuelled utes and SUVs that dominate our roads today.
So let’s ask a few basic questions and get a few basic answers.
What is an electric vehicle?
Here we’re focussing on battery electric vehicles. They are powered purely by electricity and store their energy in a high-capacity battery that feed at least one electric motor driving at least two wheels. The Tesla Model 3 is the most common example of the breed sold in Australia today.
The battery is replenished primarily by plugging into an electricity source, but can also be topped off by onboard recharging.
There are other key pieces of gear fitted to a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). An inverter is required because the electricity is stored as Direct Current (DC) but converted to Alternating Current (AC) to drive the motor. The inverter does the conversion job and regulates the flow into the motor.
An appealing characteristic of electric motors is they deliver maximum torque from the moment you press the throttle, so a complex gearbox is not required. A single or dual speed transmission often suffices.
There are other types of electric vehicles such as hydrogen fuel cells. But the lack of refuelling infrastructure means this tech will be seen in heavy transport such as trucks and buses sooner than private vehicles.
Nor are we looking hybrids or plug-in hybrids, both of which supplement orthodox internal combustion engines with electrical charge.
How far do they go?
Range anxiety is a very common term used in relation to BEVs.
When they first started appearing on-sale in Australia last decade their range between recharges could be less than 120km!
So you were a brave person to head out and about far from a plug-in point in a BEV. When it would run out and how you would recharge it was a constant preoccupation.
These days range anxiety is far less of an issue. Battery tech has progressed to the point where 300-400km range is not uncommon, especially if you avoid being a leadfoot.
How easy are they to recharge?
Wherever there is a powerpoint there is the potential to recharge a battery electric vehicle. The established electricity grid is a key reason BEVs have become the preferred new energy choice.
So just as you plug in a hose to fill up the tank of your petrol-fuelled car, so you plug in an electric cable to recharge the battery of your EV.
But while the fuel hose runs at a regulated speed and you know pretty much down to the second how long it will take to fill up your car, it’s a lot more complicated with an EV.
How long a battery takes to recharge from empty to full depends on the capacity of the charger and the size of the battery.
The basic way to recharge is at home via the 240v wall socket. That is the slowest method and can take 24 hours or more to take the battery from empty to full.
An AC wallbox charger drops that to under 12 hours or better depending on the car and the charger (they vary in capacity up to 22kW), so you can fully recharge in your garage at home overnight.
The quickest way to refill the battery of a BEV is via DC fast charging. Think of it as a bit like hi-flow diesel at your locals servo only the difference in speed is even more pronounced.
Most fast chargers are 50kW, some are 100kW and a few are ultra-fast 350kW. Most EVs actually can’t charge at latter rate though.
However, new cars are now rolling out with 800 volt systems (up to 400 volts is the usual standard) that also help slash recharging times.
Do they tow?
Yes EVs can come with rated towing capacity. The best in Australia at the moment is the BMW iX that can haul up to 2500kg. That’s 1000kg shy of the top-selling Ford Ranger ute and Toyota LandCruiser SUV.
The reality is EVs aren’t ideal towers yet. Just like diesel or petrol vehicles the energy consumption rate of an EV steeples when there’s a big van or trailer on the back.
But while a diesel vehicle like a Landcruiser has a 128 litre fuel tank to guarantee a decent range, the battery packs in BEVs are already too big and heavy to grow substantially in size to overcome the shortened range triggered by towing.
The tech is improving and this problem will be overcome in time.
There are alternative solutions emerging. Caravans and trailers with electric motors and batteries to supplement the tow vehicle’s capabilities are being tested now.
This tech is still not in production and it will add cost to the purchase price of your caravan. But it looks promising.
Why are BEVs so expensive?
So you’ve probably noticed all cars are getting more expensive. Since COVID hit there’s been a whole heap of challenges relating to materials cost, production halts, microchip shortages and transport and logistics snarls and the cost of freighting stuff.
In a classic economics case study restricted vehicle supply has also triggered price rises. It’s all about supply and demand.
All these issues apply to BEVs, plus the prices of rare earth metals and lithium used in their storage batteries and electric motors are going up as well.
There’s another reason BEV supply is restricted in Australia and that’s the lack of national emission reductions rules that financially punish excessive CO2 outputs and encourage EV take-up.
With EV demand outstripping production globally, manufacturers are sending vehicles where they do the most good in terms of meeting mandatory targets and selling in worthwhile numbers.
It now looks like Australia will soon be developing mandatory CO2 emissions targets designed to accelerate our BEV take-up. That should mean more supply and maybe better prices… But that’s a whole other story.