The uptake of electric vehicles is moving at a fast pace around the world. So why is Australia lagging behind, and what can we do to catch up? To find out, we chatted with Electric Vehicle Council founder and CEO, and the preeminent spokesperson for EVs in Australia, Behyad Jafari.
Behyad Jafari didn’t grow up as a “car guy”. In fact, he says the vehicle part of his mission comes last. It’s an interesting answer to the question of where his passion for electric vehicles comes from.
“For me, it was a passion for decarbonisation and addressing the effects of, or mitigating the worst impacts of, climate change,” Behyad says.
“It’s that, as well as the ability to build really smart and interesting industries in Australia.”
He describes the current state of the electric vehicle industry as having a Silicon Valley vibe—a tech bubble where exciting things are happening.
“I’m [interested in] the ways that the electrification of transport directly improves our society by cleaning our air, reducing carbon emissions and reducing our dependence on foreign oil …
“And then the much more interesting part is indirectly, I work with really interesting people who are doing interesting things, like building new manufacturing plants for electric buses and vans—it’s really smart technology.”
Behyad has an ideal career background as an advocate for electric vehicles having worked in the clean energy space while he worked at Transgrid, “at that intersection between the corporate world and government”, he explains.
Working on strategy to devise how to get more renewable energy into the system, Behyad says coming from the renewable energy world was very useful for what he does now.
“What we’re doing today is basically where renewable energy was 10 to 15 years ago,” Behyad says.
“The question for us was why is the world leaping forward ahead of us on electric vehicles and Australia’s behind? So all the barriers that people talk about—the higher price of vehicles, not enough of them in the market, charging infrastructure—to me, that very quickly looked like a question around investment certainty, because we just did this.
“In the case of renewables, the government provides some initial support to get the ball rolling, investors come in, and the market takes off.
“You look at something like rooftop solar panels—we’re a world-leader in the adoption of that. That speaks a lot to the type of people we have in Australia.
“So it’s funny when people from the energy world plan an agenda for electric vehicles—a sort of policy agenda—and they say it’s line-for-line for what was done for rooftop solar panels.
“And we say, ‘yeah, that’s where we stole it from’,” Behyad laughs.
Behyad is no stranger to liaising with government to try and get them on side. Around when he founded the Electric Vehicle Council back in 2016, he drove an electric vehicle to parliament house, letting ministers take it for a test drive.
“I’d explain, you know, it’s a car that you plug in and you charge it, and you drive it and it’s a normal car,” Behyad says.
“The best way that I could advocate was to get people to drive electric vehicles. I’ve done a lot of laps around places like the Federal Triangle with me in the passenger seat of electric vehciles, and they sometimes surprise people with how much power they have. You put your foot on the accelerator and the car really goes.
“So there’s always shocks and a bit of whiplash there.”
Behyad explains that at the time, the electric vehicle industry was very new, and no one was really talking about it in Australia, despite the fact that it was taking off in the rest of the world.
“There was some recognition that it was happening, but the conversation wasn’t very real in Australia at the time,” Behyad says.
It has been five years since, and Australia still lags behind the rest of the developed world—a fact Behyad attributes to other governments having very strong and ambitious policies in place, that include incentives for the consumer.
“They set up things like mandates and standards that require electric vehicles to be sold in their markets,” he says.
“And there are phase-out dates, so we see a lot of markets where they have 2030/2035 bans on internal combustion engines and in the immediate term they have very generous incentives for consumers.
“If you look at the US and around Europe, you’re getting $10,000 to $15,000 back if you buy an electric vehicle, so as a result companies that are building large-scale charging infrastructure are looking at that and saying that’s where we’ve got to go and put our investment today.
“I think in Australia we think of doing nothing in an area is the status quo and letting the market decide, when the reality is, doing nothing is an aberration, because everyone is competing with the jobs that come with the electrification of transport.”
In terms of where to go from here, the aim for Australia’s electric vehicle industry is to provide certainty for investors.
“When someone brings a car to your market, that is an investment decision for them,” Behyad says.
“It looks like a car, but to them it looks like a number on a spreadsheet.
“The benefit of being so far behind the rest of the world is we know what works. And what works for the rest of the world is fuel efficiency standards, regulation that requires electric vehicles to be brought in, and to be met and complemented by consumer incentives to purchase electric vehicles.
“There’s no successful electric vehicle market that doesn’t have a combination of those things in place.”
When asked what his wishlist for government is to facilitate the electric vehicle industry in Australia, Behyad says first and foremost, in the next five years, exempt electric vehicles from a wide range of taxes that apply when someone buys them.
A recent barrier to the uptake of electric vehicles in Australia is states such as South Australia and Victoria have proposed a road tax on electric vehicles, like the current fuel excise duty.
“It sounds like a throwaway line, but we’ve been saying from the beginning. This will make Australia the first market in the world that taxes instead of incentivises electric vehicles,” Behyad says.
The issue with this is that it’s short-term thinking.
“They’re worried about if somebody buys the electric vehicle and doesn’t pay the taxes, well they could have been buying the petrol vehicle and paying taxes,” Behyad says.
“But they recognise there are benefits in terms of the costs that are allocated to it, but they also have treasury people saying yeah, but I want the money in my hand right now, I don’t care about the broader economic situation.
“So I guess it’s a friction between what is actually their jobs—which is to provide services and wellbeing to the community and support the community—compared to what they see their jobs as, which is just to raise revenue and make money. The point of making money was to do something good with it.
“I think where we are at in Australia is quite frustrating, particularly at a federal level.
“The reality is, much like the broader clean energy world and really in the electric vehicle world, we deal mostly with state governments and have somewhat given up on the federal government, even though we keep dealing with them, they’ve kind of let go of their role and the states have started picking up the slack.”
Behyad says there are states and territories that are doing good work. He says in terms of leadership, the ACT has traditionally been a driver for electric vehicles, and it’s the only government that provides strong financial incentives for people to buy electric vehicles, as well as a whole range of other measures around charging infrastructure and electric vehicle-ready buildings.
“New South Wales is also making all of its buses electric by the end of the decade, and they’re also looking to put more money into charging infrastructure and supporting fleets to go electric,” Behyad says.
“Queensland has been doing quite a lot in the charging infrastructure space and western Australia recently made a similar commitment so there are some really good and interesting things happening there.”
But, Behyad says it’s not just about dipping our toes in the water.
“We actually have to be quite ambitious. It’s difficult for a government to say they’re going to provide incentives for people to buy electric vehicles because it can be expensive to do so,” he says.
“But, it’s a necessary thing to do. Yes it’s expensive, but you’re going to benefit on the other side of it.”