By Samuel Smith
Published: Wednesday, August 11, 2021
As a car-obsessed child of the early ’90s, I’d often find myself fantasising about all the wild, new automotive advancements that were – surely – just around the corner.
Decade after decade, I watched in awe as big-name marques released outlandish concept cars like the Toyota C+pod and Ford Synergy, designed to showcase the latest technology that would, supposedly, become the norm.
Much to my dismay, most of these models never made it to market.
Today though, things are different. The automotive industry is going through a transformative period, the likes of which has never been experienced before.
Attitudes toward, and practices around fuel, infrastructure and modes of ownership are rapidly evolving, setting the wheels of change in motion.
So, prime yourself for that next dinner conversation about what transport will look like in the future, with our overview of some growth areas.
Most cars on our roads these days are petrol-powered, but a shift is in the air, and at the pump.
Of all fuel types, electricity is the future forerunner, with more and more motorists making the switch.
A 2020 RAA survey found more than 40% of South Australian motorists would consider buying an electric vehicle as their next car.
Australia-wide, the number of registered electric vehicles increased by 63.2% from 2020 to 2021, according to figures recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
So how exactly do electric vehicles work? Let’s break it down.
HEVs (hybrid electric vehicles) are powered by a conventional engine and an electric motor. The traditional engine does most of the work, while the electric motor assists, with the main goal of improving fuel economy.
PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) work similarly to HEVs, except their batteries are bigger and can be plugged in to charge. Also, their electric engines are more powerful than those in hybrids and can propel the car without the use of a conventional engine.
BEVs (battery electric vehicles, like the Tesla Model S) also known as pure electric vehicles, are powered only by batteries.
So, what might the future look like for EVs? Mark Borlace – RAA Mobility Technology Specialist – has some ideas.
“Currently, the main obstacles to EV uptake are price, range and public charging infrastructure, but developments to overcome these issues are gaining pace,” he says.
“Many potential owners are still uncertain about how long EV batteries will last, and the cost to replace them.
“But as the market becomes more confident that EV batteries have a similar lifespan to traditional engines, and batteries are able to be replaced or reconditioned at a reasonable price, we’re likely to see those concerns reduce, and more people buying second-hand EVs.”
Looking to the future, Mr Borlace predicts EV prices will drop. There’ll also come a time when we’ll be able to exchange batteries between models.
“Some studies have forecast that in Europe, the price of new EVs and conventional vehicles will be the same within 5 to 6 years,” he says.
“Currently, batteries are integrated into the structure of EVs, but there will be innovations in battery technology, allowing batteries to be swapped – this will allow the integration of different technologies that will significantly reduce charging times.”
Hydrogen vehicles, also known as FCEVs (fuel-cell electric vehicles) run on electricity, but their batteries don’t need to be recharged at a power outlet.
Their tanks – made of carbon-fibre – are similar to those found in petrol-powered vehicles, but instead are filled with hydrogen gas.
The gas then mixes with oxygen from the air, in a fuel cell, to create electricity. This both drives the car and can charge the battery. As long as there’s hydrogen in the tank, the vehicle’s electric motor will continue to run.
Hydrogen cars have a similar range to petrol cars, and water vapour is the only thing leaving the tailpipe.
Currently, in Australia, hydrogen-powered vehicles can’t be bought by the public. This is mainly due to a lack of refuelling infrastructure, but 2 major automotive brands are paving the way for future change.
Earlier this year, Toyota and Hyundai Australia both launched hydrogen-car fleet trials, testing hydrogen technology in real-life on-road scenarios.
Toyota leased 20 of its Mirai FCEVs to businesses and organisations in Melbourne for private use over the next 3 years. Hyundai’s trial is happening in Canberra, with 20 of its Nexo vehicles.
Matt MacLeod, Toyota Australia’s Manager of Advanced Technology Vehicles, says the trials are helping normalise the new technology while providing vital insights into how hydrogen cars perform on Australian roads.
“It’s a great opportunity to highlight the fact that these cars drive just like any other vehicle, except they don’t make any engine noise and emit nothing but water vapour,” Mr MacLeod says.
“It’s an exciting first step to not only build greater awareness about this new technology, but it’s also a step towards a cleaner, greener future.”
Hydrogen Mobility Australia CEO, Claire Johnson, says the trials will help grow the hydrogen industry and quicken infrastructure development.
“Hydrogen mobility is being recognised by governments around the world to meet their environmental and economic goals. In Australia, we are working with governments at all levels to accelerate the introduction of hydrogen transport with positive progress to date, however public-private partnerships will be essential for the long-term success of this important sector,” she says.
Toyota is gearing up to release its Mirai to the Australian market within the next two to three years. It has been available in Japan since 2014.
Electric charging infrastructure
In May this year, the South Australian Government announced it will install 530 new fast-charging stations across the state by 2023. The proposed network includes stations in Marla, Leigh Creek, Ceduna, Renmark and Mount Gambier, eliminating major roadblocks for potential EV buyers in regional areas.
South Australia’s Electric Vehicle Action Plan aims to make SA a national leader in electric vehicle uptake and smart charging by 2025, harnessing renewable energy to lower motoring costs, air, noise and carbon pollution.
As part of the plan, the government is investing $13.4 million to grow the state’s EV charging network and $3.6 million to fund EV charging trials.
Supermarkets, motels, holiday parks and petrol stations are among more than 600 SA sites that have registered to host EV charging stations.
The EV Action Plan’s overarching goal is for electric vehicles to be the common choice for motorists in SA by 2030, and the default choice by 2035, in line with the state achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Hydrogen charging infrastructure
In countries like the US, China and Japan, thousands of hydrogen-powered vehicles are already humming through citystreets. The main reason they aren’t available in Australia yet, is that a network of refuelling outlets isn’t available. There are currently four hydrogen fuelling stations in Australia – one each in Canberra and Melbourne, accessible only to specialised fleets – one behind Hyundai’s head office in Sydney, and another recently opened in Queensland.
So, where is Australia at right now, and what does the future hold? We put those questions to James Wong, Marketing and Stakeholder Engagement Manager at the Australian Gas and Infrastructure Group.
“Hydrogen Park, in Tonsley, was officially opened in May 2021. It’s Australia’s largest electrolyser, supplying a 5% renewable hydrogen blend into our gas network,” says Mr Wong.
“It’s currently supplying approximately 700 customers with this renewable blend of hydrogen, and we can transport it all around South Australia in tube trailers.”
In the future, Hydrogen Park aims to supply hydrogen to the transport sector. Before that happens though, appropriate refuelling infrastructure needs to be set-up.
“The lack of refuelling stations is one of the biggest fuelling issues Australia faces,” Mr Wong says.
“But as car companies produce more hydrogen vehicles and demand increases, refuelling stations are the next phase. It’s about awareness, investment and resourcing.
“Hyundai, for example, spent a lot of money in the US, funding refuelling stations and establishing partnerships with a number of organisations.
“I envisage a similar situation down the track, in Australia. As more people become aware of hydrogen vehicles and interest increases, I think we’ll see more of an uptake.”
In 2016, South Australia became the nation’s first state to introduce a law allowing trials of driverless cars on open public roads. The law facilitates on-road trials, testing and development of driverless vehicles and other advanced automotive technology on SA roads.
Since then, several driverless vehicles have hit the streets. In 2018, RAA partnered with Flinders University to run the Flinders Express (FLEX) – a driverless public electric shuttle servicing Adelaide’s Tonsley Innovation District. FLEX operated until recently, but is taking a precautionary break during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, Olli – an autonomous vehicle built by US-based Local Motors – began a 6-month trial run along Glenelg’s foreshore, connected to a smart bus stop named Matilda.
Today, many cars on the market are automated to some extent, using radar technology, lasers and cameras to assist with steering, braking, parking and cruise control.
In fact, new Teslas come standard with advanced hardware capable of providing autopilot features, and full self-driving capabilities in the future.
So why aren’t we seeing fully automated vehicles on our roads yet? RAA Mobility Technology Specialist Mark Borlace says it has a lot to do with safety.
“Getting autonomous systems to work in all weather conditions, in all jurisdictions, is a complex task,” he says.
“For fully autonomous vehicles to become the norm, we’d need a high level of connectivity between cars, and extremely complex, compatible infrastructure.”
Mr Borlace predicts it will be at least a decade before autonomous vehicles can be used freely on public roads.
“That’s due to the complexity of the technology and the need for updated legislation such as road rules,” he says.
“Progress-wise, worldwide, there continues to be development and roll-out of niche, purpose-built autonomous vehicles in controlled environments, plus the deployment of driverless taxis for public use in small, controlled urban areas.”
Car and ride sharing services are emerging as key transport players globally, with a growing number of would-be motorists ditching their keys in favour of someone else’s.
Ride sharing services like Uber, Ola, DiDi and Shebah allow you to take a ride in someone else’s vehicle for a fee.
With access-based services like RAA Car Subscription and Flexicar, you can drive a car from as little as an hour, up to months at a time.
While ride sharing solves your parking problems, car sharing and car subscription offer the user the benefit of getting from A to B quickly and – most importantly – non-existent ownership costs.
Sitting within RAA’s innovation space, RAA’s car sharing service, in partnership with Flexicar, is currently the only one of its kind in Adelaide.
“It’s a trial, in which we’re trying to find out what the needs are for a car sharing service in South Australia – especially Adelaide,” says RAA Product Manager Anita Saunders.
“Unlike traditional car rental services, you only need to sign up to Flexicar once, then you have access to a range of cars at various locations around the CBD and in some suburbs.
“Using the app, Flexicar allows you to find and book a car that suits you in the moment, which is something you can’t do if you’re stuck with your own car for many years,” Ms Saunders says.
“Data from the trial will help us find out what customers need now, so we can work towards a long-term transport solution.”
While Flexicar is a great short-term transport solution, RAA Car Subscription – the first and only service of its kind in SA – hands drivers the keys for longer, with subscriptions starting from 60 days.
It’s a great way to regularly swap out your wheels to suit your changing lifestyle or get a better handle on a potential new purchase by test driving a car for a long period of time.
Ms Saunders says a desire for sustainability and an increase in urbanisation are 2 factors contributing to rising interest in both car and ride sharing worldwide.
“More and more people are trying to be sustainable by making some changes in their daily routines,” she says.
“Whatever their stage in life, people are finding they can get by with one car, or no car if they have access to car sharing and public transport.
“We’re seeing car sharing users aged from 21 to 85.”
Looking to the future, Ms Saunders expects car sharing and car subscription will grow in popularity, especially in bigger cities, due to factors like pricing and convenience.
“Value for money is a huge plus, compared to the cost of owning and running your own car, but another appeal is the fast and flexible nature of these products – they’re accessible and based on needs and demand,” Ms Saunders says.
Shifting attitudes towards car ownership are also impacting other industries.
“In many places, we’re already seeing apartment complexes being built with fewer carparking places. Instead, they’re looking to offer car sharing to residents as a supplementary service,” she adds.
The final word
Innovation in fuelling, automation, ownership and infrastructure is prompting us to re-think how we interact with our cars, and is paving the way to a cleaner, faster, safer and more connected future.