Is Australia a global automotive knuckle dragger?

“The facts are eye-opening. Our track record on emissions makes for the most uncomfortable reading.”

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For the longest time, it was the default response. Corner a shiny suited car company MD at a motorshow to ask when their new piece of whiz-bang technology would actually make production (invariably it’d be a new electric vehicle, or a ‘next-gen’ autonomous system) and the answer would be fired back with a reassuring surety.

“By 2020,” they’d say with a knowing smile, as if they were in on some joke the rest of us weren’t. And for the longest time, we believed them. Well, why wouldn’t we? Back then, 2020 seemed so far away. Plus, it had a nice ring to it. As though it offered some arbitrary line in the passage of time when we’d all be commuting to work in luxuriously appointed driverless pods and parking Teslas in our garages.

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Now, though, it’s D-Day. Which begs the obvious question: have we made it? Are we about to experience a wave of crushing technological advancement, and if not, how close did we get? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how short have we fallen?

One comment made by deputy editor Andy Enright while writing a feature trying to answer that very question has stayed with me: “Is Australia the knuckle dragger of the developed world?” he mused at the end of a very long day.

At first I brushed it off. Australia!? No. We’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world. A country of forward thinkers, of early adopters, and example setters, aren’t we? Surely we’re ahead of the curve when it comes to making the car a safer, easier and cleaner form of transport. Surely…

The facts are eye-opening. Our track record on emissions makes for the most uncomfortable reading. Not only does Australia have one of the worst rates for carbon emissions per capita in the world, but that number is rising. And the transport sector is one of the worst offenders.

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Then there’s the issue of our fuel quality. It might be cheap, but our low-quality, high-sulphur petrol is among the worst in the developed world, and that has spawned a vicious circle with lingering consequences.

Not only are our cars dirtier (a Department of Infrastructure report cited a comparison of best-selling variants for popular cars like the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Tucson in the UK that found that Aussie cars were about “27 percent worse on average”), but car companies are no longer sending us their most efficient and technically advanced models. “We don’t get variants that are sent to CO2-sensitive markets,” confirmed one local car-company exec.

We’re relative Luddites when it comes to EV adoption, too. In 2018, Aussies bought about 2700 electric cars, which equates to just 0.2 percent of our total market. Of the 36 nations that are part of the OECD, 32 buy more EVs than us. Only three other countries buy fewer, and they’re classed as emerging economies.

However, there is hope for us here. Sales of hybrids and EVs doubled in the first 10 months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, even in a market that’s down almost nine percent. And that’s excluding Tesla, which, in a typically Tesla way, refuses to publish its sales figures. So how to foster this newfound growth? “Incentives!” is the obvious answer, though I’d counter there’s a smarter solution.

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Vinesh Bhindi, who is the MD of Mazda Australia, rightly argues that giving private EV buyers cash incentives might increase sales, but it does nothing to address the primary objective of reducing CO2. So why not incentivise energy companies instead? “Yes you can have an EV, but if the energy generation isn’t renewable and clean, then how does that meet the objective?” he says. “That’s the crucial part of the whole puzzle.”

The issue, of course, is time. Just as 2020 now seems hopelessly naïve for the introduction of autonomy and mass-market EV ownership, any estimate on when Australia might transform itself into a leader on these global challenges is likely to be woefully inaccurate. Though that shouldn’t stop us trying.

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