What’s next after petrol cars?

Filling up your car with a tank of petrol may soon be a thing of the past.

It wasn’t so long ago that the demise of the petrol-powered car was virtually unthinkable. A key part of societies the world over, it seemed inevitable the internal combustion engine would play a starring role in our lives forever. There’s a chance that this is all about to change. 

Thanks to ever-heightening environmental concerns, readily available alternative technologies and the fall-out from VW’s fraudulent emission claims, some industry analysts believe that the days of the gas-guzzling transport staple are well and truly numbered.

Countries such as India and Norway have already set targets for the elimination of petrol cars from their roads within the next 15 years, while the Netherlands has indicated a desire to ban sales of new petrol cars, including hybrids, from 2025. China is also planning to remove petrol and diesel cars from its roads in an attempt to make smog-blanketed cities more livable. Perhaps one of the greatest trend indicators is that global automotive culture enabler, Saudi Arabia, is considering selling off its petroleum assets with an eye to a world less reliant on oil.

It’s not only governments leading the charge. Hundreds of thousands of motorists worldwide are already taking the initiative, making the switch to electric or hydrogen-powered cars, well in advance of any legislative trigger. Last year, Dutch drivers bought 43,000 electric vehicles, equating to a 9.6 per cent market share, while in London, there are plans to establish a citywide network of 6000 charging points. China, meanwhile, tripled its electric vehicle sales to 150,000 in 2015, with predictions that figure will double each year for the next three years.

Another key moment pointing to a turning tide was the immediate response to the March launch of the third model in Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car range. In the days following the event, Tesla Motors received a staggering 276,000 orders for its Model 3, 180,000 of them in the first 24 hours. This despite the fact that the car –with a price tag of $US35,000 – won’t be available in the States until late 2017.

George Galliers, an analyst with international strategy and investment group Evercore ISI, was succinct in his reaction. “To us, the vehicle is ‘the game changer’ and will likely play a critical role in Elon Musk’s desire to expedite the auto industry’s transition from internal combustion engine to electric,” he wrote.

So while a number of key developed economies seem set to make a change, what about Australia? Are we close to consigning our beloved Fords and Holdens to the scrap heap? And just how long will petrol cars remain the most viable form of transport?

“That’s the $64 million question,” says Greg Partridge, vice-chairman of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association Sydney (AEVA). “Certainly there are a lot electric cars available at the moment, such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla model X and S and the Audi e-tron. The Federal Government has also announced a change in legislation to allow private imports from 2018, enabling all overseas electric vehicle models to be privately brought into the country. The major sticking point in Australia is infrastructure or charging facilities. That’s what we’re really waiting for at the moment.”

Experts also point to other hurdles, such as the lack of plans to introduce legislation prohibiting the use or sale of petrol or hybrid vehicles. There’s also a current lack of subsidies to help motorists offset the cost of an electric vehicle.

However, a local market for alternatively powered vehicles (as well as a budding infrastructure support network) does exist. Last year, Australia’s first hydrogen refuelling station was opened by Hyundai in Sydney, while the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia launched the country’s first electric highway – a network of 12 fast-chargers spanning the state’s south-west coast.

`“There is no technical reason Australia couldn’t have a hydrogen highway. It just comes down to investment or petrol stations getting behind it,” says hydrogen car expert Cranston Polson from H2H Energy. “The cars are ready, we just need the refuelling infrastructure.”

While some countries have nominated 2025 as the deadline for a petrol car phase-out, Greg Partridge from the AEVA Sydney believes the next two decades will likely see Australians move into a more interim period.

“I don’t know whether we’ll be petrol car-free by that time,” he says. “I think there’ll be an equal choice between whether you buy a petrol car because you prefer a petrol car or an electric car, which will do the same thing for much the same cost. I think that’s what we’ll be looking at in the next few years.”