A proposal for electric-car manufacture in Australia
We recognise that Australia is unlikely to again establish a large-scale motor-vehicle industry on the Ford, Holden and Toyota scale. However we believe it is entirely feasible for this country to locally manufacture a small low-cost electrical car which will fill an important and neglected niche in the market.
We have called this the "MinEV" project to emphasise the low-cost, basic-vehicle, nature of the proposal. Essentially it is a simplified, enclosed golf-car, but with special conditions attached to the license.
The MinEV small-car project
Battery-powered golf-cars are certainly within the manufacturing capability of Australian manufacturers. With minor legislative changes to road-licenses we could allow the use of limited-range small, basic electric vehicles of about the size and cost of a golf-car. Elderly pensioners and public transport commuters would quickly establish the required market to make mass-production highly feasible. Since most components of the current car market are currently imported, the financial benefit of such a development to the Australian economy is fairly obvious.
Even more to the point, such a vehicle would save billions of Australian tax-payer dollars because, with the increasing age and independence of our elderly citizens, it is the loss of the legal right to drive (or the financial capability of owning and maintaining a car) that forces many tens of thousands of elderly citizens to move prematurely into nursing homes and assisted care.
Small electric cars licensed only for limited distances on suburban roads will therefore benefit the Australia's national wealth and social service provisions in two very substantial ways: by helping many elderly people remain independent, and by reducing the outflow of capital.
This would be a totally new category of road vehicle, with restrictions placed on speed and range, and the road licenses would include prohibitions on using such vehicles on freeways and tollways, etc. However, both government registration fees and third-party insurance costs should reflect the limited applications and range.
The MinEV is also an ideal category for local production by the remnants of Australia's old components manufacturing industry. They may not need to be assembled in the old traditional way by large corporations with centralised large-scale production assembly lines. This kind of vehicle can be put together by smaller independent assemblers in each State, by using standardised components to which can be added a small variety of body styles.
The body panels of a size and strength-requirement that suggests plastic moulding on what is a basic welded steel frame. Weight-reduction is not a major requirement in such a vehicle, so the main frame could be along the welded monocoque cage design.
The marketing niche that the MinEV would fill today is that required by an increasing numbers of people unable to afford a conventional car, and some who would see the benefits of a cheap second low-usage vehicle:
- Aged pensioners over the age of 75 who are, at present, unable to justify owning a new car just on the grounds of expense/usage. Also, pensioner couples who are reasonably active and independent often need a second car.
- The single mother who needs transport to take her children to their local school ... and do the shopping. After divorce or separation it is important that the children continue to attend the same school - and their mother may work part-time.
- Students who need to find a way to get moderate distances to a major transport hub, or to a nearby college or university. They often fall-back on bicycles or motor-scooters.
- Family second car: We anticipate that this will become an important market segment; families will view this as replacing the worker's expensive vehicle which until now has been regularly parked all day outside a railway station.
Many aged people on limited pensions find it difficult to justify the price of purchasing, licensing and maintaining a conventional vehicle. Costs are a major consideration: car maintenance and registration and insurance costs are often too great when they may have little need to drive more than moderate (10-20 km) distances, once or twice a week.
Increasingly many pensioners are being forced to live without personal transport — which is tolerable while they can still walk to their suburban CBD.
Alternately, many pensioners are trying to maintain their old vehicles simply to do the shopping, run to the chemist, see friends, or go to the doctor. Cash-strapped pensioners often drive without comprehensive insurance policies today because they believe that these short journeys don't justify the costs involved.
In pure economic equity terms, the registration and third-party insurance costs outlaid per kilometre driven by many pensioners is about 10-to-20 times that paid by other road users: in terms of these kilometre costs as a proportion of their total weekly expenditure, it might be nearly a hundred times. This is a serious inequitable example of 'economic regressivity'.
The pensioner cohort suffers varying degrees of macular degeneration and other medical/optometrical conditions which often limit them to only local driving — with or without a concessional license. Many older people suffer from depression and anxiety attacks, and they won't drive on faster roads in heavy traffic by choice. However with Australia's sprawling suburbs, to maintain their independence in their family home it is quite essential that the independent pensioner can drive the short distance to their local shopping centre, church, or medical centre. They will probably keep off freeways and high-speed roads anyway.
There are at least a million people in this category in Australia, and as the population continues to age this will become a very sizeable market.
The Second Family Vehicle:
While these vehicles may not be a substitute for the imported family vehicle, they would provide a viable alternative to the second conventional family car. This is the car that would take dad to the railway station each morning; or it might be the one used by mum to take the kids to school and do the shopping.
We would guess that there is a multi-million dollar market here.
There are obviously many off-the-road applications for a small electric vehicle of this kind.
— The most obvious is as a small farm vehicle, horticultural utility and the like with a small metal back tray rather than the back seat and door.
— Disability-chair transporter: The basic MinEV frame and design makes this an ideal type of vehicle for adaption as a disabled personal wheelchair transporter. The use of electric hub motors (only possible at this basic, small-vehicle level) allows a use of a back-ramp run-in system which can transport a disabled person still within their motorised or hand-powered wheelchair. Such a vehicle will making man disable people independent to an entirely new degree.
Policing the range and speed limits
The ability to impose range and speed limits on this new category is the key to creating a special license. Without a simple way to police these limits, these vehicles could become a problem on our roads. The solution, we maintain, is simple. A special category of license plates should be issued to the vehicle and owner, which has a Post-code as the primary identifier, followed by a three-alpha identifier.
The number-plate of my MinEV would be (say): [2070 = Lindfield / SAF = Stewart A Fist]
This postcode system would also allow for exceptions, since individual variations on license conditions could allow the standard distance limitations to be exceeded after negotiations, to give the vehicle owner access to special services or venues via special agreed routes.
Today we have accurate GPS, artificial intelligence, electronic databases, and automatic roadside cameras which can read number-plates and record vehicle speeds. These camera units are now widely distributed and they can easily identify vehicles which are outside their registered range, or travelling at a higher than permitted speed.
Exceptions are just a matter of comparing GPS identifiers with exceptions listed in a database. As a consequence of these recent changes (especially the use of AI databases) the problem of people living near Postcode boundaries ceases to exist, and the creation and policing of a special category of road vehicles is no longer a technical problem.
Mechanical and technical:
The vehicle the elderly and disabled need is half-way between a mobility scooter and the minimal conventional car — somewhat similar to the original Mini Minor (hence the project name "MinEV"). Such a vehicle will allow them to remain independent — not becoming a burden on their family (or on the economy) — not needing to prematurely abandon their independence and enter a serviced age facility or nursing home.
These days anyone living in an Australian suburban home needs a vehicle to remain functional, and not everyone wants to (or can afford to) buy/rent an apartment in a high-rise block or a new aged-residential village within walking distance of their shopping centre.
Note: there is little difference between the requirements of most elderly people and the disabled.
The vehicle these people need to remain independent would have the following characteristics:
- They would be short-range battery-electrical, capable of distances (say) of up to 50kms on a single charge, and therefore not be dependent on the use of remote charging stations. They don't need the initial development of charging infrastructure.
- In engineering terms there would be only one basic model which would be designed by a standards-group to permit the (initial) low-level mass-production market to develop.
- The components could be manufactured by a number of small specialist firms conforming to a set standard, rather than requiring everything to be designed and controlled by a few larger-companies.
- Assembly from these highly standardised components (with some optional elements) can be distributed also. The components would be shipped between the States in bulk and then assembled, painted, finished and customised in various small State-based assembly plants.
- They would best be relatively basic in design to remain cheap. In a car driven locally in well-paved streets within one suburb there is no need for a range of standard fittings now standard in conventional cars (radio, air-conditioner, high-beam lights, electric windows, rear wipers and washers, etc).
- Since the vehicles will be relatively light in weight and generally confined to suburban streets at relatively slow speeds, the suspension systems could be simplified (as with the Mini Minor). Possibly a rubber-cushioned swinging-arm for each (independent) rear wheel assembly, and cushion tires only on the front. Modern tires would provide most of the comfort needed.
- Drive power would best be supplied by two brushless wheel-hub motors. This could allow maintenance to effectively be just an exchange of serviced components.
As a consequence of independent wheel-hub motors, the vehicle would have no engine compartment and no gear-box, back axle, differential or drive shaft. This makes the fit-out for disabled and alternative usage very flexible (ie.The disabled in wheel-chairs can use rear drive-in ramps).
- Overall the driver's cab would be basic in its fit-out. It is superfluous to have most dash-board instruments on a vehicle travelling such short distances from home.
- Also seats needed for such short distance travel could well be simple moulded plastic rather than being fully upholstered. They would be equipped simply with sash-shoulder belts. It is doubtful that air-bags would be beneficial at these speeds.
- The standard model would have four seats — probably with two facing back.
Rear-facing seats make sense for short distance travel in a small multi-purpose vehicle;
- rear-seat occupants are much safer in the event of an accident,
- the battery unit can be enclosed under the seats.
- The rear doubles as a 'trunk' allowing safe storage of purchased items in the event of an accident
- and the monocoque body-structure is not weakened by additional rear side-door gaps.
- The single rear-door hinges on the drivers side to stop exiting children from stepping out into traffic lanes.
These vehicles would be restricted to (say):
- a range of 15 or 20 kms from the registered 'home base'. [With special exceptions permitted]
- a top speed of 60 kph, which is fast enough not to block normal road traffic.
- use only on local suburban streets (no highways or toll-roads).
The State Government would necessarily provide incentives/penalties for these vehicles to keep within the speed and range-from-home limitations. For the vast majority of likely dependent users there will be no reason to exceed them — and every reason not to.
We would expect the basic models to sell for well under $10,000, and we would anticipate that special annual registration and insurance requirements would apply.
Special low-cost EV-charge-parking would eventually be provided at shopping centres and at the transport-hub parking stations (train stations/bus depots). The short-range usage however, makes these much less essential with the MinEV than with conventional EVs. However the availability of these charge-stations for MinEV vehicles would effectively double the catchment area around many railway stations.
Solar charging: The solar-panel/electronics industry claims to be on the verge of a breakthrough in mass producing flexible solar panels. In a few years these may be suitable for use as roof panels on these vehicles. They would probably solve any anticipated charging problems.
Objections to the proposal
Our long experience with trying to get this idea taken seriously by governments has always turned up the same objections from politicians and some motoring enthusiasts. (But not now from the NRMA).
They are always objections to the idea of allowing "inferior" vehicles to be licensed for road use.
The claimed fears are that they would become:
— a hazard to other vehicles on highways and main roads,
— dangerous to the vehicle occupants due to a lack of now-standard car protective devices (air-bags mainly).
We maintain that these are little more than rationalisations created by excessive car-worship among some Australians.
In fact, at these slower speeds and confined to suburban roads such vehicles are less likely to be involved in ANY accident in any single year, and certainly less likely to be involved in a SERIOUS accident - either involving the occupants, or other citizens.
On grounds of simple rationality and consistency we categorically reject the danger-to-occupants and the public arguments while parents and the road authorities still permit children to ride bicycles to school, allow motorbikes and motor scooters to race down suburban streets and along highways. And while our suburbs have very large buses now carry unrestrained passengers at 100kph without airbags to protect the occupants.
We also note that road authorities license many drivers who are disabled by age, eyesight, and other physical-impairment problems to a limited degree. They can obtain a concessional driver's license which then allows them to drive a conventional car at speeds up to 110kph on main-roads and highways ... provided only they don't stray more than 20 kms from their home.
These objections are rejected simply on the basis of common sense.
Clearly component manufacturers and State Government transport authorities will need to be involved in some advisory group that would be called upon to set standards. We don't see the need for Federal Government financial involvement other than possible prototype design support.
Road insurance would probably best be handled by a cooperative/mutual which may require some government guarantees or pump-priming to establish confidence.
It would be important to ensure that the inevitable attempts by some participants in the standards group to elaborate the design ("creeping features") doesn't occur, and that the focus remain on developing a basic low-price vehicle for the aged and disabled.
Plateau Group Convenor: Stewart Fist
Click here to email