Batteries on wheels

Why Australia shouldn't be pumping the brakes on electric vehicles

Video credit: Researcher's own.

Video credit: Researcher's own.

If electric vehicles (EVs) stored energy from the grid that you could sell later for a profit, would you be more likely to want one?

If you said yes, you are in the majority, says Dr Jake Whitehead, UQ’s first dedicated Tritium E-Mobility Fellow.

Dr Whitehead’s research examines why people decide to go electric and how we can use clever policy design and incentives to encourage their use, reduce emissions and save our climate.

Australia’s current policies on EVs are significantly holding back sales, according to Dr Whitehead, but he says rethinking our approach to EVs could not only help save our environment, but also hugely benefit our economy and even our health.

With one PhD in Transport Science and another in Transport Engineering, Dr Whitehead is uniquely placed to solve the big problems of transport.

“I study the science of transport, which is far more complex than just the engineering elements,” he explains.

“I look at how we can support uptake of all forms of e-mobility, from electric bikes to electric cars, buses and trucks. One day, potentially planes and boats as well.”

While these are undoubtedly big problems for transport, Dr Whitehead is focused on a much bigger problem – climate change, which he believes is the biggest problem we face today.

“We need to understand a net-zero emissions target is inextricably reliant on high uptake of EVs,” Dr Whitehead says.

“Based on our current work and data from other countries, I expect it will be challenging for Australia to reach this target without at least 80% of all new car sales being electric before 2040.”

“That’s significant, given less than one per cent of new cars are EVs today.”

He has good reason to focus on e-mobility.

“Today, we get around 30 per cent emissions reduction across an EV’s life cycle, compared to traditional vehicles,” he says. “More renewable energy will improve this even further.”

However, he says Australia’s relatively small number of EVs proves a point about the lack of effective EV policy nationally.

“We have to start thinking about the financial side of the equation, and how Australia can encourage manufacturers to import more EV models, which will also bring prices down.”

Dr Jake Whitehead stands next to the UQ Tesla EV

Can we sweeten the deal?

As part of an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship, Dr Whitehead and his team recently explored how to incentivise EVs through a survey of 500 Queenslanders, most of whom were non-EV or ‘potential’ owners.

“We ran consumers through hypothetical scenarios where they were forced to make choices between two vehicles with different features,” he explains.

This provided a sophisticated view of customers’ relative preference for features, while allowing the researchers to assign a clear dollar value to them.

“We can say if an EV could travel 400 km instead of 300 km, the consumer would be willing to spend around $3,500 more, for example,” he says.

In their recent study, they also explored whether people would be motivated by an exciting new feature.

“An EV is essentially a really big battery on wheels,” Dr Whitehead explains.

View from four cameras on board an EV - front, sides, and back views

New electric cars come with a variety of features, with some using multiple onboard cameras to help auto-navigate. Image credit: Researcher's own.

New electric cars come with a variety of features, with some using multiple onboard cameras to help auto-navigate. Image credit: Researcher's own.

“Today, absorbing large amounts of energy into the grid during the day from renewables like solar is a challenge. EVs could take some of this excess in, stabilising the grid, which could also support the uptake of new renewables.”

In the not-too-distant future, owners could also use the energy stored in EVs for other energy needs.

“When everyone comes home and cranks the aircon, EVs could provide energy from their battery packs to the home instead of the vehicle charging.”

This could save owners buying electricity on-peak, and provide back-up power during a blackout.

“We’re in the early stages of analysis, but results suggest a strong and positive interest in this capability, and the associated financial benefits,” Dr Whitehead says.

Having determined the interest is there, the team is now looking at the practicalities of getting this up and running.

“From a technical standpoint, it's effectively like someone installing a battery in their home,” he says.

“Regulatory changes would be needed to increase inverter power limits on owners' grid connections, however. This will evolve alongside related changes to support increasingly larger home solar systems.”

In the coming years, the team will work with Australian households to better understand what offers would be most attractive to them, and how this technology could effectively be deployed.

A taxing issue

Dr Whitehead’s work shows that incentives make a clear difference when people are choosing whether to buy electric.

This is why he says the proposed new road pricing taxes on EVs introduced by the South Australian and Victorian governments is so disappointing.

“The idea of road pricing, where drivers are charged based on the time of day, areas they travel through or annual distance travelled, is not controversial itself.

“We should plan to move towards this taxation approach to allow us sustainable road funding in the future,” he says.

“What is controversial, though, is introducing road pricing for one specific type of vehicle only, without any significant financial incentives.”

As part of their survey about using EVs as a household battery, Dr Whitehead also investigated how road pricing would alter sales. While the results aren’t yet published, he felt compelled to speak out about them.

“The lack of public engagement and absence of published modelling led me to a tough decision, where I felt I had to release our results early.

The reason for this was Dr Whitehead's results provide concrete evidence that without significant financial incentives, EV taxes are likely to significantly reduce sales, with implications for meeting net zero targets.

“The overall narrative is quite clear,” Dr Whitehead says. “There is a pathway to introducing road pricing in the future, but it needs to be paired with clear and strong incentives to encourage EV uptake.

“So much of our research shows that many, many households would love an electric vehicle today. It’s just outside of their budget right now.”

Leaked reports suggest governments were previously warned about the potential negative impact of these proposed EV taxes.

“The idea that an additional cost is not going to have a negative impact on sales does not make economic sense.”

The Victorian and South Australian governments have justified the tax by saying EVs do not pay a fuel levee, which is used for road maintenance. But Dr Whitehead says blaming EVs for revenue losses is misleading.

“As traditional cars have become more efficient and hybrid sales continue to increase, fuel consumption has naturally dropped. This is the true reason for reduced fuel excise revenue,” he says.

Ironically, it is likely disincentivising EVs will push people towards hybrids even more, compounding this issue.

Image credit: Researcher's own.

A white EV driving towards a lake in a desert

While pointing out the problem, Dr Whitehead’s research also provides a straightforward solution.

“Our modelling shows a simple and effective incentive would be to get rid of all existing road taxes for EVs. Essentially, if you had an EV, you wouldn't pay stamp duty, registration, road tolls, GST, and so on,” he says.

“That way, you bring down the cost to purchase an EV, but you do that in exchange for opting into a new road-pricing scheme.

“That would be far more acceptable to consumers and industry alike than what’s currently on the table.”

A four-wheel drive EV on the beach

While Scott Morrison's government claimed EVs will 'end the weekend' due to the lack of off-road vehicles for recreation, this EV and many others are right at home on the sand. Image credit: Researcher's own.

While Scott Morrison's government claimed EVs will 'end the weekend' due to the lack of off-road vehicles for recreation, this EV and many others are right at home on the sand. Image credit: Researcher's own.

Dr Whitehead says the road pricing scheme could be adjusted over time, in line with electric vehicle uptake.

“It should start off at a very low rate, perhaps one cent per kilometre, to allow a genuine financial benefit” he says. “When sales get to 10 per cent, road pricing could increase to two cents per kilometre, and so on.”

This combined approach would allow road funding to grow to a sustainable rate in the long-term, while still supporting the uptake of electric vehicles, claims Whitehead.

“Price levels should be transparently communicated from the outset, and clearly linked to the policy objective of increasing EV uptake to deliver a zero-emission economy by 2050.”

A car speed dial
A petrol pump
A piggy bank and stacked coins
Car exhaust pipe
A doctor with stethoscope
A heart monitor
A car speed dial
A petrol pump
A piggy bank and stacked coins
Car exhaust pipe
A doctor with stethoscope
A heart monitor

Dr Whitehead hopes that, as a nation, we can be more long-sighted about EVs and take the massive economic and health benefits they will provide more seriously.

$20 billion spent each year on foreign fuel for cars could be spent on Australian-made energy to power EVs, whether this energy comes from renewable sources or traditional coal and gas.

70 per cent savings on running costs of EVs would become available for households and businesses.

A 100 per cent reduction in tailpipe emissions with EVs would have a huge impact on reducing respiratory illnesses, including asthma and lung cancer.

It could even mean increased life expectancy: it is estimated Australia has more premature deaths from motor vehicle pollution than motor vehicle accidents.

The economy would also benefit, as far less health problems from emissions reductions would the strain off our health system, freeing up money and resources.

Drone footage of an EV from above

Image credit: Researcher's own.

Image credit: Researcher's own.

Dr Whitehead says the best part is we don’t even need to do much to get the ball rolling.

“The interesting thing our research has shown is you don't have to throw tens of thousands of dollars at people to influence their behaviour,” he says.

“Implementing relatively modest measures will drop prices, allowing us to get cheaper EVs into the country so the technology is available to more people.

“It will be enough to start the snowball, and that's what we want to do.”

Dr Jake Whitehead

Tritium E-Mobility Fellow
UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation
Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology

Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellow
School of Civil Engineering
Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology


Dr Jake Whitehead smiling at the camera