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A new era: The electric car charges ahead in New Zealand

Flip the Fleet founders Henrik Moller (left) and Dima Ivanov. The project gathers data on performance, battery health, maintenance and repair costs, public charging costs and charging behaviour. Photo/The Listener

It’s a quiet revolution, but more and more Kiwis are cutting up their fuel cards and going electric. Rebecca Hayter gets into the nuts and volts of the EV movement.

Over the roar of explosions as pistons compress vaporised fuel and air in internal combustion engines everywhere, it is easy to miss the quiet revolution of electric vehicles – especially because many of the participants are hiding in plain sight.

Most are Japanese cars; some are Teslas, BMWs or Mercedes. Their drivers include professionals, young couples, greenies, retirees and even the editor of this magazine, part of a movement that runs counter to one of the most powerful industries in the world: oil.

Don’t expect a definitive moment when the silent coup succeeds. More likely will be a gradual awareness that our lives have evolved differently from a world that ran predominantly on fossil fuels. Like the difference between a time when telephones connected with a wiggly cord to the kitchen wall and our now-world of smartphones.

Like all good revolutions, this one brings new acronyms: EV (electric vehicle), ICE (internal combustion engine) and PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle).

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EVs may be silent, but in New Zealand their owners are not. They have a voice, thanks to a world-first citizen science project, Flip the Fleet. Its founder is Henrik Moller, emeritus professor of zoology, Otago University. “Most of my life I’ve worked with communities to bring about change from the bottom up,” says Moller, who considered himself retired until he bought an EV. “I thought I’d better learn to use Facebook because there were all these EV support groups. I started watching debates about what was happening with their batteries and instrumentation and thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy. They are all thinking about what’s happening, just based on their own car.’ So I blurted out: ‘Why don’t we all share data as EV owners?’”

Dima Ivanov, an EV owner at Whangaparāoa, responded: “Good idea. Why don’t we use my business-benchmarking software?” Moller and Ivanov publicly launched Flip the Fleet in June 2017. Daniel Myall, another EV owner and a statistician researching Parkinson’s disease, volunteered to analyse the data.

Data? EVs are a geek’s delight. Every month, more than 1400 Flip the Fleet EV and PHEV owners insert a decoder into a port beneath their vehicle’s dash. The dongle downloads its performance data to an app; for Nissan Leafs, this is LeafSpy. Monthly data includes the EV’s average distance travelled, efficiency (kilometre per kilowatt hour), average speed and – the biggie for an EV – the health of the lithium battery. Flip the Fleet also gathers data on maintenance and repair costs, public charging costs and charging behaviour, among other issues. It’s information by democracy – by EV owners for EV owners – and it’s earned Flip the Fleet $88,583 of co-funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund for providing “independent, authoritative information”.

Citizen science is also about heart: the experiences and observations that drive the decision to buy, as much as the numbers. Flip the Fleet asks the questions in its monthly 1-click surveys. For example, in Survey #18: why did you buy your battery electric vehicle?

“I was spending $80-$120 per week on petrol… We are saving $400-$500 a month on fuel alone, never mind that lack of other expenses for upkeep of the car,” responded one.

One retiree had cashed in his KiwiSaver to buy an EV in a $30,000 “reverse” investment. He saves $2500-$3000 per year in petrol, oil and maintenance costs. “If I’d invested the $30,000 principal in a term deposit, I would be lucky to get 4% return and any interest gained would be taxed. Buying the EV represented a tax-free 10% annual gain on my ‘investment’.”

Another agreed he’d first looked at an EV for cost savings: “Then I drove one... I was 100% sold, the instant torque and silent acceleration was addictive. The other benefits then started to make an impact: silent ride, lower stress driving, full tank in the morning, lower household power costs at night.”

Running and maintaining an EV costs about a quarter of the cost of running a traditional ICE car. In answer to another question, on the impact of EV ownership on individual mobility patterns, a pensioner wrote: “Making an hour trip into Wellington to visit my new granddaughter was costly ($20 at least) with my previous [ICE] car. Now I don’t even think about it and visit when I want.”

Another respondent noted: “I used to hate driving (due to concern of environmental consequences – aka ‘carbon guilt’), but now… I’ll pick up my kids after school on a rainy day if I can, whereas previously I would have just let them walk in the rain.”

For the elderly, another plus is that in the absence of engine noise, a hard-of-hearing couple can talk to each other while driving.

Joe Camuso. Photo/Ken Downie.

Some EV owners feel so good about their emission-free driving they want to reduce emissions wherever they can. For some, it’s a small beginning: “When our ICE lawnmower died we bought a battery-powered mower to replace it.” Another drives his EV to Christchurch and back, 380km each way, to reduce CO2 emissions rather than fly.

Then there’s American-born Joe Camuso of Whangārei, who sees an even bigger picture. He believes EVs can end wars. “I would say in most wars since World War II, and even in World Wars I and II, oil played a huge part as countries fought to control vast reserves. The Syrian war today is an oil war. Russia has an oil-gas pipeline to Europe. The West-friendly Saudi/Kuwait-proposed pipeline route goes through Syria. The Russia-backed, proposed Iran pipeline goes through Syria.

“If I gave you a barrel of crude oil, there’s not one person on the planet who can make that into a useful product without an army of chemical engineers, electrical engineers and huge support from the military-industrial complex. However, if I give you 10 solar panels and electric transport, you can be completely self-sufficient in your transport needs and free from oil companies. You clean up your cities: no big cloud of smoke and loud roar as a bus takes off at the lights in downtown Auckland.”

Camuso works with a regional council that runs 12 electric vehicles out of a total fleet of 30. Last year, the EVs covered 200,000km, saving $33,000.

This is not the world’s first attempt at electric cars. They appeared in the early 20th century but were swept aside by the internal combustion engine’s superior power and reliability. In the 1990s, as chronicled in the film Who Killed the Electric Car?, the California Air Resources Board tried to force General Motors and other big manufacturers to build a minimum number of zero emission cars. The car makers unwillingly complied, but they supplied all the electric cars on lease arrangements while taking their government to court. General Motors and its buddies won the case. When the leases expired, the manufacturers took back possession of their electric cars and scrapped them. They had far too much invested in the internal combustion industry to let it go.

Robots work on Tesla’s Model X in the company’s Fremont, California factory. Photo/Getty.

This time, the EV revolution has some trump cards: a worldwide urgency around climate change, and a perfect collision of smart technologies – advanced lithium battery technology, apps, smart-phones and GPS. They make EVs a leader in emerging transport options such as car-share schemes and driverless cars. But there’s a problem.

The electron in the room is the EV battery, specifically for the Nissan Leaf, of which New Zealand has about 8000. On average, EV lithium batteries lose 3% of their capacity every year. Eventually, they will need replacement, but Nissan doesn’t support cars that have come into the country secondhand.

“It takes time to gear up,” says Camuso. “You just can’t get on the phone and order 500,000 electric motors and battery packs. Ford and BMW are all restricted because they don’t have the batteries to build the cars, whereas Tesla, five years ago, started building the biggest battery factory in the world, which allows them to build 1000 cars a day. General Motors can only build 2000 cars a month.”
 Car manufacturers are an unlikely handbrake, but used-car dealers are the good guys. Moller is batting for them.

“Secondhand car importers are left vulnerable by lack of support from the vehicle manufacturers, who have shown complete reluctance to take responsibility for their product if they’ve been brought into New Zealand secondhand,” he says. “I believe this is unethical.” He wants to see changes to the Consumer Guarantees Act to ensure manufacturer support for secondhand EVs.

“If we don’t get enough supply for New Zealand to make the transition, then we’ll have to do much more costly things for a net-carbon-zero economy,” says Moller. “It’s crucial batteries can be refurbished and replaced. That is the weak link. New Zealand is unique in the world in trying to make this major change to electric transport without strong subsidies and also relying predominantly on secondhand EV imports.”

Albie Burgers and the bank of solar panels outside his Golden Bay home. They power the Burgers’ Nissan Leaf and elderly, converted-EV Daihatsu Charade. Photo/Rebecca Hayter.
The fastest uptake of EVs in New Zealand is in multi-car households that replace one ICE car with an EV or PHEV and keep the second ICE car as back-up. Moller hopes government incentives will encourage even more uptake in this sector.

The hybrid households tend to do away with the your-car/my-car model. Instead, they allocate the cars depending on the day’s needs. Whoever is driving the greatest distance gets the EV, to make the greatest saving on fuel.

Dima Ivanov works from home on the Whangaparāoa Peninsula and usually has the ICE car at his disposal, while his wife Olga takes their three-year-old to daycare in the EV. But if Ivanov is going to Auckland, a round trip of 85km, he’ll take the EV to save fuel.

For trips beyond the EV’s 100km range, or requiring some grunt to tow the boat, they usually take the ICE car, but on a recent weekend to the Bay of Islands, they took their Nissan Leaf. They stopped at public charging stations at Kaiwaka, Whangārei and Kerikeri, and borrowed a portable battery charger to use at their motel. “We did around 600km for $45,” says Ivanov.

Some families have gone all-EV, such as Albie and Felicity Burgers in Golden Bay. They bought their first EV in 2013: a 1988 Daihatsu Charade that had been partially converted from petrol power to electric, using cables in lieu of number-eight wire. Then, its lead-acid, deep cycle batteries gave a range of only 25km. With six lithium batteries, all expected to last 20 years, it now has a range of 100km. One battery is in a plywood box under the bonnet; the other five are where the back seat used to be. Acceleration on this DIY model is “pathetic” and the top speed is 70kmh.

Three years ago, determined to never use another drop of fossil fuel again, the Burgers replaced their second car with a Nissan Leaf. It can top 120kmh and has a range of 130km if driven efficiently.

The main power source for both cars is a bank of solar panels in the paddock beside the house. A car charging during full sunshine will draw about 3kW. The solar panels are rated at 5kW, so this leaves a surplus of at least 2kW for other household running or to sell back to the national grid. The couple regularly has power bills in the negative, where the power company credits their account. Felicity calls it driving on sunshine.

The Burgers’ all-EV example is a great tonic for a major criticism of EVs: range anxiety – the fear of a battery running flat, like an ICE car running out of fuel. You can’t hitchhike to the nearest gas station for a jerry can of electricity. “If it’s too far to go in an EV,” Albie says, “it’s too far to go.”

They’ve had three long trips: Auckland to Tākaka when they bought the car; Tākaka to Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass, West Coast, Murchison and back home; Tākaka to Invercargill and back.

“You can’t just say, ‘I think I’ll go to Christchurch,’” says Felicity. “You have to plan ahead.” Apps such as PlugShare list charging options to aid the planning.

The first option is likely to be public chargers, of which ChargeNet has more than 100 in towns throughout New Zealand, and counting. Unlike the oily environment of a petrol station forecourt, charging stations are ungreased lightning: slick, neat footprints barely noticeable in shopping malls and car parks.

Some towns have free chargers, usually supplied by local authorities or electricity suppliers to encourage uptake, and they tend to attract queues at popular times. A serious crime against EV etiquette is to leave a fully charged car blocking a charger while you finish your shopping. Worse, parking an ICE car on a charging station. This can incite ICE rage.

Charging technology is charging ahead. Ultra-fast chargers from Porsche take just 12 minutes to charge up for 400km of driving, so a 160km charge in five minutes is likely within a few years. For now, 97% of charging happens at home, taking two to three hours overnight. Fast chargers on highways top up a battery in about 30 minutes, while standard chargers take two or three hours. For a busy person, that might be torture, but many EVers regard charging as time to stop and smell the roses. Transportation meets mindfulness.

Or, for the Burgers, playfulness. On a trip north, they stopped at Masterton for a three-hour charge stop. Expectations were low but they went to Queen Elizabeth Park and had a wonderful time checking out the playground’s miniature railway, pirate ship and medieval castle. “We see towns we wouldn’t see otherwise,” Felicity says.

Other charging options for travelling away from home include camping grounds and private homes that have registered their services, like couch-surfing for EVs.

Ed Harvey set up EVnex, for commercial fleets, four years ago. It builds charging stations and cloud management software for EV charging. EVnex installs charging stations in the company carpark for employees, fleet vehicles and potentially customers. Through EVnex cloud management software, the client can monitor and control its EV charging, for example with swipe cards, and stagger charging times to avoid peak loading. As more EVs appear in suburbs around the country, this type of technology may allocate charging times to each household overnight to take advantage of off-peak rates.

Ed Harvey was in his final year at university when he converted his Honda Accord to electric. Four years ago, he set up EVnex in Christchurch, to install charging stations for commercial fleets. Photo/John Collie.
To the non-converted, EVs suffer an image problem as being gutless, vulnerable to short battery range and about as much fun to drive as a golf cart. Environmentally, they create a bigger carbon footprint to manufacture than a conventional car, and we’re told it may soon be impossible to replace batteries in Nissan Leafs here.

Flip the Fleet’s Henrik Moller accepts this backlash. “It’s a well-known phenomenon that when you’re bringing in a new technology, you get hype it’s going to be the saviour to everything and it builds to a peak of unrealisable expectations. That sets people up for disappointment and there’s a hell of a dump, which is called the trough of disillusionment.”

Gradually, a better-informed pick-up leads to the slope of enlightenment and finally the plateau of integration. It may sound like tantric guidebook meets marketing spiel, but Flip the Fleet aims to smooth out the peaks and troughs. “It’s a contest around the unknown and who’s got trusted information in that first phase. That’s exactly where we are now.”

Moller publishes the bad news along with the good. Sure, EVs use more energy in manufacture than a conventional car does, he says. “But then you save on the petrol emissions and pay off that initial investment of CO2.” EV motors are expected to last for 800,000km or more, making maximum use of that initial investment, because there is no mechanical wear in the engine and minimal vibration.

As for fun, EVers reckon their suburban runabouts take off like a Ferrari. Golf carts were never like this. And who can mock the luxury long-range models of Mercedes and Tesla, with the ability to upload software improvements automatically while their owners sleep?

Along with governments worldwide, New Zealand has committed to be net carbon zero by 2050. Transport contributes one-fifth of our emissions and that contribution is increasing, so it’s timely to encourage citizens and corporations to cut the umbilical cord to the fuel bowser. Norway has led the way with subsidies for buying EVs, exemption from new car import duties, free parking, nil road user charges and subsidised car registration costs.

The New Zealand Government has committed to waive road user charges for EVs until they comprise 2% of the national car fleet. That would be around 64,000 EVs, a target the government has set to achieve by 2021.

Camuso says the economic side is as important as the environmental side. “The New Zealand electric grid is 80% renewable electric energy in hydro, geo-thermal, wind and solar. Of this, Kiwis own 51% of the generation and 100% of the grid, yet we pay billions of dollars to oil companies offshore.

“When we fill up on electricity, we fill up on companies that Kiwis own, so the money is staying in the country and employing Kiwis. When we fill up on gasoline, we are importing approximately $8 billion worth of oil per year.”

Apart from government incentives, the evolution of EVs will drive their popularity. In only one or two years, there will be more EVs on the market with a 400km range at realistic prices, and super-fast chargers will enable 200km worth of charging within five minutes – about the same as filling a petrol tank. At the current rate of battery technology improvement, short-haul international flights, eg London to Paris, in electrically powered aircraft will be an option within 10 years.

EVs may soon even take an active role in how we manage our power bill, privately and nationally, and help us through power outages. V2H (vehicle to house) and V2G (vehicle to grid) technology allow the electricity already stored in the car’s battery to be taken out again.

In V2H, the EV owner can use the electricity to power their home during emergency electricity outages. In V2G, the owner charges the car during cheaper, low-peak times and sells the power back to the national grid during peak demand at a higher price, potentially contributing to lower electricity prices for everyone. This already occurs in Japan and Norway.

It’s a perfect synergy: saving money and saving the planet – and the best incentive for getting more EVs on the road.

Joe Camuso is a fan of Yoogo Share, a car-sharing company operating in Christchurch and Auckland. Photo/Ken Downie.

Car sharing is here

For those of us who name our cars and treat the front passenger seat like a second office, it’s scary to think of sharing a car. And who dares to come between a bloke and the cherished “vroom-vroom” of his V8? We might have to get over it. In the next decade, expect to see a major reduction in privately owned vehicles. Instead, an app will identify shared vehicles available in our neighbourhood: a hatchback for the morning commute, a sports car for a burst of follicular freedom, or a ute to pick up a new lounge suite.

Our phone will receive a code to unlock the car we’ve chosen. At the end of the trip, we will leave the car within a designated area, unless we require it for further use, and enjoy the freedom from insurance, registration and maintenance costs for a vehicle that is used for only 5% of the time. Unlikely? It’s already happening in Norway, Denmark and the US, among others. In fact, it’s happening in New Zealand with Yoogo Share in Christchurch and Auckland, and Mevo Car Share in Wellington. YourDrive is another service where private car owners can rent their car (EV or conventional ICE) to others to share costs. A little further into the future, autonomous EVs or ICE cars may drive themselves to our smartphone summons.

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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