What's keeping Kiwi drivers out of electric cars?

by Peter Griffin / 20 March, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Lack of choice and incentives are major factors.

I always thought that by the time I could afford to buy a new car, technology and market economics would have advanced to the point that it would be powered by electricity. Alas, the new-car smell I’m enjoying for the first time is shot through with the familiar whiff of 91 Unleaded. We are apparently on the cusp of an electric-vehicle revolution, but for me it’s another gas guzzler and that vague sense of guilt every time I fill up.

I tried hard to go electric. I wanted to see the little green indicator on the dashboard displaying the virtuous, renewable-energy-powered ­kilometres I was clocking up. I was ready to lobby my ­apartment block’s body corporate to install ­charging points in the garage. I trawled online electric dealership EV Central for weeks looking for a good buy.

But when it came down to it, the economics just didn’t stack up and the bland and boxy selection of electric cars available left me uninspired. For $42,000, I could have picked up a 2016 Nissan Leaf Tekna with 2500km on the clock. Instead, I opted for a new, much roomier 2016 petrol-powered Nissan Altima for $30,000.

Sure, if I was a commuter, the Tekna’s fuel savings would have mounted up – it has the longest range of the Leaf line, offering up to 200km of around-town driving and costing about $6 to fully charge.

Janet Stephenson: “We want efficient vehicles.”

But I walk to work and I need a mid-sized sedan rather than a shopping cart. I was willing to make some sacrifices in the name of sustainability, but found myself lost in the yawning canyon between small cars such as the Mitsubishi i-Miev and the BMW i3, which has a price tag of $82,000. The upcoming Tesla Model 3 fits the bill but isn’t on sale here yet, and priced at US$35,000, it will ­probably sell for more than $50,000.

The choices among plug-in hybrids, which ­combine an electric motor and petrol engine, are also limited. The only affordable option is a used Toyota Prius, for $35,000-$40,000 (with low ­kilometres), which will see you mistaken for an Uber driver.

You can see why our electric-vehicle fleet is tiny – about 2500 registered cars. The cost savings in fuel consumption and maintenance are compelling for drivers who do big distances, but with little in the way of subsidies, green sentiment is the only incentive to go electric for most Kiwis.

Yet experts say electric cars won’t make much of a dent in our overall greenhouse gas emissions, anyway. “Just relying on electric-vehicle uptake won’t take us very far very quickly,” says Janet Stephenson, director of the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.

“Even if we got to 2% of the light-vehicle fleet being electric by 2022, that represents only about a 0.18% reduction in New ­Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Transport accounts for a fifth of our total emissions, and trucks, buses and vans ­carrying people and cargo represent most of that. “Policy is needed to influence all the other vehicle imports so the right ­signals are sent that we want efficient vehicles entering the fleet,” says Stephenson.

Our weak emissions trading scheme is failing to send the right price signals to the market, says Massey University sustainability professor Ralph Sims.

The carbon price applied under the scheme – to which drivers ­contribute through fuel tax – is about $18 a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2).

“A small car typically produces two tonnes of CO2 a year, so paying about $36 a year through the emissions trading scheme is little incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Mid-sized electric models will come, the driving range of electric vehicles will increase as motor and battery technology improves and the sex appeal of the Tesla will give the whole industry a much-needed kick.

But given the fundamental lack of drive to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, I wouldn’t be willing to bet that when I trade in the Altima, it will finally be for an electric car.

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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