Electromobility: On The Charge

bike
Small-wheeled cargo bikes allow the carrying capacity to increase while the overall size of the bike stays the same.

Greenhouse gas emissions from transport have recorded the highest rate of growth of any sector in the last 30 years. The key to changing the projected trajectory, which forecasts continued growth through to 2030, is about finding cleaner transport solutions.

According to the Climate Council, Australia is the second-largest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions in the world and transport is our second-largest source of pollution. And while electric-powered vehicles are the most obvious and effective solution, in this country, it’s an industry still very much in its infancy in terms of technology, efficiency and consumer affordability.

Compared to many other global markets, Australia’s take-up of electric-powered vehicles has been low. It’s a result largely driven by short-sighted government policy removing incentives to switch to low-emission transport. But there’s plenty of misconceptions surrounding the day-to-day realities of electric vehicle ownership, too, which could be causing Australians to shirk what’s an otherwise simple answer to a worsening problem.

Four-Wheeled Options

In terms of passenger vehicles, there are three types of low-emission options available in Australia; hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric. While there’s varying levels of hybrid technology, it generally refers to a vehicle which employs both a petrol-powered engine and an electric motor. The electric motor’s battery is charged via the combustion engine and regenerative braking, which harnesses the kinetic energy lost through deceleration and feeds it back into the battery.

Plug-in hybrid technology is when there’s both an electric and combustion engine, but you have the ability to charge the electric component through an external power source. As a result, they generally have larger batteries than standard hybrids, meaning the electric component plays a bigger role and the emissions are lower. All-electric vehicles do away with the combustion engine – and emissions – altogether.

How We Roll

Currently, less than one percent of Australia’s passenger vehicle fleet employs an all-electric powertrain. It’s a long way from Germany’s 11 percent, which represents the European average, and a far cry from Norway who’s leading the way with up to 70 percent.

The reluctance in take-up has been attributed to a few factors; the time it takes to recharge, the distance or range batteries can provide, and the rate technology is improving, which could mean your new investment could be superseded before the warranty period’s over. But, the realities are only one out of three concerns are justified.

Research has shown that for most Australians, their vehicles are parked upwards of 85 percent of the time, negating any concerns of charging times. An all-electric vehicle has an average range of 500 km, which is more than most of us will travel in a single sitting. And while the time required to completely recharge a battery can take hours, a fast-charging station can add 300 km or so of range in as little as 10 minutes.

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Small all-electric cars can achieve 80 percent charge in as little as one hour;

Urban Solutions

Looking at how we move around and ways we can reduce our reliance on larger vehicles is an equally important strategy for reducing transport emissions. In an era where many of us are looking to move away from public transport, adopting electric-drivetrain technology in a bicycle, motorcycle or scooter is a low-impact solution to reducing greenhouse gases. The adaptation of electric motors into bicycles now means you don’t have to compromise on the distance you need to cover as much as you once would have, making them a viable commuting option.

Pedal Power

The popularity of electric-assisted bicycles – or e-bikes – has grown exponentially in the last decade as more and more people make the switch to cleaner and healthier transport options.

E-bikes aren’t self propelled in the same way as an electric motorcycle or scooter is, instead they provide electric assistance relative to the amount of pressure being applied to the pedals by the rider. Self-propelled versions which are operated by a throttle are available, however their power outputs and top speeds need to be capped in order to avoid motor-vehicle classification and subsequent licensing requirements.

There are still standards which pedal-assist bikes are required to adhere to for the same reasons and, while they vary slightly between states and territories, power output is restricted while motors are speed limited to 25 km/h.

Options range from road bikes and mountain bikes through to urban commuters and cargo bikes, with motors either fitted to the crank (the point which your pedals turn) or the rear hub (the centre of the rear wheel). Actuated by a controller, most bikes offer riders the ability to switch between modes, which modulate the level of assistance and, in turn, battery life.

Each option and setup will vary enormously in price depending on the size of the battery, the motor’s output and the controller specification, not to mention the componentry used on the bicycle.

Design Brief

The relative cost of an e-bike compared to a conventional bicycle is far higher than that of their four-wheel counterparts. To understand why, we need to consider the increased forces an e-bike is subjected to compared to a standard pedal-powered pushbike. The increased acceleration, braking and cornering forces an e-bike needs to endure requires a stronger, more rigid frame, as well as improved brakes, wheels and running gear due to the higher performance capabilities. Compare this to a car, and there’s very little difference in base performance of the vehicle depending on its drivetrain.

And while there’s plenty of aftermarket conversion kits available to turn your pedal-powered bicycle into one assisted by an electric motor, it’s important to understand you may be pushing the bicycle outside of its design limits, while voiding warranty at the same time.

While many people have successfully retrofitted a motor, battery and controller to a bicycle, others have complained of the lower quality of the aftermarket components and lack of warranty support. If you’re considering this option, do some thorough research and weigh up the short-term savings compared to your long-term goals.

ebike
Long optional accessory lists allow you to customise an e-bike to suit your individual circumstances.

Motorcycles And Scooters

The licensing requirements for electric-powered motorcycles and scooters present a hurdle in terms of effortless adoption, but the strides the sector is taking in removing some of the negativities associated with electric-powered transport makes them a really appealing option.

Unlike a car, for example, which uses extremely large and heavy batteries to achieve a range which meets market expectations, powered two-wheelers use much smaller batteries which, in some cases, can be removed and charged independently of the vehicle. This negates the need to find parking near a power outlet by allowing the user to charge the battery during the evening or workday.

As well as being far more affordable than a four-wheeled electric vehicle, a lot of bikes, though not all, are charged via a standard wall plug, rather than the specialised charging point required for cars.

But it gets better, because in May this year, four large and competing motorcycle manufacturers begin working within the recently formed Swappable Batteries Consortium for Motorcycles and light Electric Vehicles. Aimed at the standardisation of batteries used in motorcycles and scooters, the swappable system will not only remove the need to factor in the time required to recharge a battery, but it means your battery will never get ‘old’ because it’s being replaced by a different and fully-charged version.

By extending range, shortening charging times and lowering vehicle and infrastructure costs, the consortium addresses many concerns which could otherwise turn commuters away from affordable emission-free transport.

Price Barriers

The higher price of an electric vehicle, whether it’s a bicycle or an SUV, is a barrier for many Australians, especially when you consider there’s far fewer options for would-be owners in this country compared to what’s available in Europe. According to the Electric Vehicle Council, other parts of the world have choice of up to 30 different cars which sit between the $30–$60,000 bracket, whereas Australia has fewer than five.

Batteries can account for up to 50 percent of the cost of the vehicle but as this technology improves, so will price parity, and industry commentators believe pricing between electric and combustion-engined vehicles could be on par in as little as five years time.

But right now, the upfront costs are offset by significant long-term savings, with charging costs translating to an equivalent of around 30 cents per litre compared to an average petrol-powered car – but combine that with solar power and the costs could reduce to as low as zero.

With fewer moving parts, there’s reduced maintenance costs, too, so consumables such as oil, filters, spark plugs, etc., no longer need to be factored into the costs.

Weighing It Up

If an electric-powered vehicle is on your radar as a way of reducing your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a few things to consider when working out which is the best option.

You need to first work out if your goal is to be 100 percent emission free, or if it’s more realistic to introduce an electric bike or scooter which can replace the majority of your transport needs, until such time the technology and price parity is at a level that you’re both willing and able to replace the petrol-powered car.

You need to take stock of how far you travel each day, where your vehicle will be parked and work out your travelling-to-parking ratio so you can make educated decisions about the range you realistically require. Most sectors will offer short- and long-range battery options which will vary in price.

Much like the energy star rating applied to whitegoods, the industry has a standardised NEDC rating to inform consumers of the vehicle’s energy consumption. It typically overstates range though, so is more effective as a comparative measure rather than to rate an individual vehicle’s performance.

Plugging in

So many options, where do you start?

Like any emerging technologies, it can be difficult to discern reputable brands from the ones who want to cash in on the latest trends. Whichever form of transport takes your fancy, we recommend starting with a well-educated and licensed dealer.

The Australian Electric Vehicle Association is a volunteer-run, not-for-profit organization which, surprisingly, has been around since the early 1970s. It’s a reliable and objective source of information, and breaks down regulations on a state-by-state basis.

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