VW and the argument for electric cars

The emissions scandal at Volkswagen is one reason New Zealand should be taking electric cars far more seriously than it is. Environmental writer Andy Kenworthy can think of plenty of others

As will be quite clear by now, the emissions scandal engulfing Volkswagen has ramifications – most of them bad – way beyond the German carmaker. Politicians, regulators, other car makers, and others, will all be under the spotlight, after the revelation that Volkswagen installed software on 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide, allowing them to pass America’s stringent nitrogen oxide emissions tests. Then, once certified, the software shifted the emissions settings, leaving the cars to emit pollution at up to 40 times the permitted level.  

What is less clear is the impact the carmaker's (nay, carmakers') transgressions will have on the internal combustion engine, and the issue of what powers our cars. As diesel is revealed as a far bigger polluter than we realised, could it be that the day of the electric car – surely one of the slowest-adopted technological advances ever –  could be nigh.

(Not a lot of people know this, but electric vehicles aren't a cool new technology; in fact the first electric car was produced in the 19th century by the same guy behind the electrification of the London underground – more below.)

Writing in Idealog magazine before the VW revelations, environmental activist and writer Andy Kenworthy argued that New Zealand has all the factors that should make electric cars a big hit. Cheap, renewable energy, declining electricity demand, and a clean, green reputation to uphold. So why, he asks, have we got fewer than 700 electric vehicles in the country – a measly 0.01% of our total fleet?

Dude, where's my electric car?

When I was nine, I discovered a new laugh hiding behind my tonsils. It was 1983, and I was on the back of my Dad’s Z1300 roaring along at 170 kilometres an hour. I heard it again last month. The Tesla Model S I was in made the jump to light speed at the touch of a button, while humming. 

Electric cars are about to make other cars look like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The oil age will seem like the steam age. Pouring stinking liquids into vehicles will seem as quaint as shovelling them full of coal. The only question left will be why we waited so long.

Part of the answer is in the history. This technology has been with us since the 1860s. By 1900, more than a third of America’s fledgling car fleet was electric. But they only went 30 kilometres an hour, and then the batteries died. Increasing their range and performance would remain a challenge throughout the next century. 

For a long time, a procession of crackpot electric vehicle designs that looked like jelly moulds helped make driving an electric car as cool as tongue-kissing your grandad.

Early petrol cars were crap as well, but with investment they got better faster. Oil was cheap. Climate change was an issue for wonks until the 1990s. Oil based air pollution was less obvious than the coal smog everyone had grown up with. So why not do everything with internal combustion?

Fast forward to more recent times. Anybody in contact with reality knows why the internal combustion engine is a liability, whether they choose to accept it or not. 

Don’t get me wrong: I like cars. But I also like Bangladeshis and the Marshall Islands – both of which are seriously at risk from climate change – and I’m quite keen on not having to fight endless hordes of refugees in a hurricane.

In 2008, a blip that was part of the beginning of the end of cheap oil created a fuel price spike. American shoppers suddenly felt they might not all actually need 6-litre, 3-tonne Hummers. The US car industry shat its pants to bankruptcy. That was pretty much all those geniuses had on their shelves.   

Cab drivers and people who were good with numbers were already buying hybrids. Enter the alien lifeform known as Elon Musk, with hysterical amounts of .com cash cascading from his ears. The Tesla Roadster his company produced had lithium-ion batteries you could charge at home. It had a range of more than 320 km. It went 0-100 in less than four seconds and could whirr up to 165kph. 

In three years they sold only 2,250. But owners included people like Leonardo di Caprio, Will.I.Am and Matt Damon. The electric car finally became aspirational. But to be aspirational, it was also deliberately exclusive, and expensive. To get a Tesla Roadster to New Zealand would have cost more than $NZ200,000, plus shipping. So nobody did it. 

The technological advancement, demand and economic imperatives finally spurred other companies to action.  BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Chrysler and more started turning laughable concept cars into serious propositions. 

The race was on. 

Trouble is, years later, and New Zealand is still stalled at the start line with strange smells coming from under the hood, while Norway leaves everyone for dust. Aren’t Norwegians a bit like us? They have their clean green image to uphold and they have their renewables. So what have they got that we haven’t? 

So far they have had an economy affluent enough to fund this investment in electric cars. Ironically, a lot of that comes from the country’s faltering oil industry. Norwegian electric car owners pay no annual registration fee. They pay no tolls. They get access to special lanes on the roads. If you drive for a living in an electric car, you get an income tax deduction. Electric cars arexempt from the otherwise hefty sales taxes. 

Most of these discounts are set to remain in place until Norway has pump-primed its car fleet with 50,000 shiny new electrics. About one in seven of Norway’s cars is electric, and the Tesla is the biggest selling car. More than 1,500 of them purred out of the showrooms there just through March last year.

Norway closed the price gap. Now that range and performance issues are solved, this is all that holds electric vehicles back. Tesla’s stated mission is to develop a quality electric car for the masses. 

But we are not there yet. Take the example of the quirky little Mitsubishi iMiev. It was first imported into New Zealand in 2011, but at $60,000, went head to head with a host of top end motors. It sold less than a dozen. The main distributor here doesn’t even put them on its website anymore. A new electric Nissan Leaf costs $33,000. You could get a similar petrol Toyota Yaris for $13,000 less. 

Still, even in New Zealand the gap is closing rapidly. Electric vehicle battery charging costs are the equivalent of 26 cents per litre. High quality second-hand Nissan Leaf vehicles imported from Japan can be had for $20,000. It is only a matter of time. And it wouldn’t take much to speed things up. 

Electric vehicles will get better and better. They are coming. That is inevitable. The only choice we have is how long we choose to lag behind. The New Zealand Government has already provided an exemption on Road User Charges until 2020. Currently it is only worth about $NZ700 a year. Other tax exemptions and benefits like those in Norway should follow. And the Government should do its best to assist companies like Tesla to set up shop here. 

Far-sighted company fleets at Northpower and Mighty River Power are making the switch. They have a vested interest in selling more electricity. The New Zealand Government, local authorities and health boards should be next. 

Energy minister Simon Bridges wants electric cars in New Zealand. But he wants his oil money too, and it’s about 30 years too late to do it the way Norway has. Instead we can do better. Norway’s electric cars are funded by oil. Ours need not be. Cleantech will be for the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. We can shift gear right now. 

Either that or we keep pumping $NZ7 billion of fuel into New Zealand each year. And instead of a two-for-one choccie deal, our free gift will be all the Middle Eastern wars and climate destabilisation we can deal with. 

Andy Kenworthy is a writer for Greenpeace