American Culture Wars, Chinese Imports: Why Australia’s EV Market Is So Fascinating

By automotive-mag.com 14 Min Read

Australia isn’t one of the biggest markets in the world for electric vehicles, but it is one of the most interesting. With a small population, long-standing love of petrol-guzzling highway cruisers and close proximity to China, it’s a nation that in some ways lags behind the rest of the world in EV adoption, and in other ways… also lags. But is trying its best.

Like a lot of other things about the country, the Australian EV market is a melting pot, featuring cars and trends you’d recognize from all over the world—from American-style culture wars to discount Chinese imports—thrown together in the most chaotic way possible, with governments scrambling to adapt to changes in the market and buyers reluctant to trade in their big dual cab utes.

Small Market, Big Changes

The electric vehicle market in Australia is booming. Well, kind of. Electric car sales saw a 161% increase in 2023 compared to 2022’s numbers, which taken as a percentage alone is a huge leap. In terms of the actual number of cars finding new homes, it constituted a jump from 33,000 EVs sold in 2022 to 87,000 in 2023, which are small numbers no matter the market (especially when you consider over 1.2 million cars were sold in Australia in total last year). To paint a bigger picture, despite these recent upswings in sales, electric cars currently make up just 1% of the total passenger fleet in Australia.

Still, a leap is a leap (8% of all car sales in 2023 were EVs, up to 10% in early 2024, which is progress—and higher than the U.S. already), and it’s a sign that after years of pricing buyers out of the market, thanks in part to a restrictive luxury vehicle tax that unfairly targeted the high battery costs of an EV, some recent tax concessions, combined with more affordable models making their way to showrooms, are finally convincing more and more Aussies to make the switch to electric cars. 

Tesla’s brand awareness has also played a part here but other manufacturers—Kia, Hyundai, BYD, MG, BMW, Volvo and Polestar—are making strides as well. After years of supply woes during the pandemic, where Australia was a low priority for many companies, rival cars are now arriving in volume, and with enough variety that consumers now have a genuine choice, across manufacturers and categories, when it comes to buying an EV.

Early estimates show that EV sales in Australia for 2024 should comfortably pass the 100,000 mark, which would be another huge increase from 2023. The continued popularity of home solar installations is also helping here, as is a slow-burning change in public opinion, which put electric cars on the frontlines of the culture wars in 2019 when then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the opposition Labor Party’s attempts at formulating an EV policy for the ICE-dominated market–which he incorrectly believed would replace Australia’s beloved dual cab utes and SUVs with much smaller vehicles unable to “tow your trailer” or “get you out to your favorite camping spot with your family”—an attempt to “end the weekend,” as they said. 

MG4 AUS

But significant challenges remain if mainstream adoption of electric vehicles is to come anywhere near the targets some governments are setting, like the Australian Capital Territory’s goal of phasing out all consumer internal combustion car sales by 2035, which is a much stricter objective than the Biden administration’s call for EV sales to make up 50% of the American market by 2030.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard The One About Charging Infrastructure Before

The single biggest issue facing the Australian EV market, more than any hesitation over price or cultural opposition, is infrastructure. Specifically, the lack of it. There simply aren’t enough public (or private) charging stations to facilitate the widescale adoption of electric cars, there aren’t enough being built, and the chargers Australia does have are often too slow, unreliable or both. 

Adelaide EV Charging

This affects all Australians, regardless of where or how they live. For an increasing number of inner-city apartment dwellers, where building owners are reluctant (despite some recent government attempts) to invest in chargers, tenants are being locked out of one of the great financial incentives of owning an EV: saving money on fuel. For regional Australians–or anyone traveling regionally, something we’ll get to soon–a scarcity of highway chargers makes traveling long distances between towns a perilous prospect. 

And for suburban homeowners, well… actually, they’re doing just fine. Indeed contrary to a lot of stereotypes about electric car owners in Australia—that they’re usually confined to the wealthy inner suburbs of our biggest cities—the biggest contributors to EV growth in the country are actually suburbanites, who are taking advantage of home solar to slash the costs of their daily commute.

Charging also affects many Australians (or at least many Australians yet to purchase an EV) on a psychological basis, with continued concerns over range and charging times on long road trips. Like the US, Australia is a large, car-dependent nation, where people regularly travel huge distances for work, holidays and visiting family.

Chargefox Australia

Anyone making these trips in an ICE vehicle wouldn’t think twice about range, because there are petrol stations all across the nation’s highways and towns. But highway charging stations here are still few and far between, many are slow (50kwh and under), and the newer stations that are operational are often plagued with reliability issues and long queues on popular travel dates. (Again, sound familiar?)

It’s one thing telling prospective EV owners that their regular interstate drives might take 20-30 minutes longer while they wait for a charge. It’s another to tell them there might be lines keeping them there for an hour or more during holidays (when they’re most likely to be traveling!), and that’s if the machines are even working in the first place. 

This is less of a concern for Tesla owners, of course, because like in many other markets the company has scores of proprietary charging stations all across Australia. And last year Tesla began the process of opening some of these up to owners of non-Tesla vehicles, albeit at a premium price. (Nearly all electric vehicles in Australia, Tesla or otherwise, employ a standard CCS2 port, making this cooperation much easier than somewhere like the US where an adapter is currently required.)

Tesla CCS2 Australia

But Australia can’t rely on Tesla chargers alone to pick up the slack; if governments are truly interested in seeing more and more people make the switch to an electric vehicle, there needs to be a greater commitment to providing the infrastructure—whether through incentives or direct management of the rollout–that switch requires. 

What’s Available, And What Are People Buying?

In the least surprising news possible, it’s Tesla that dominates the Australian EV market. As the first EV company to take Australia seriously, and the first to really establish a presence here–both with showrooms and charging stations–it’s been able to build up a market lead that dwarfs that of its competitors.

Tesla sold over 45,000 cars in Australia last year, with sales of just two models (the Model Y and Model 3) accounting for 53% of all electric car sales in the country. That’s a colossal presence in a fledgling market, but it actually constitutes a slide from 58% of all EV sales in 2022, as more and more companies enter the market at scale and chip away at Tesla’s total share. 

Mercedes EQA Australia

Outside of Tesla, some of the more traditional manufacturers enjoying sales success in Australia in 2023 included Kia with the EV6, Volvo with both the XC40 Recharge and C40, and Mercedes-Benz with the EQA. The Polestar 2 (disclaimer, I own one) also sold in (relatively) healthy numbers.

The biggest splash in the Australian market last year, though, was made by discount (at least by EV standards) Chinese companies, particularly BYD and MG, who count Australia as one of their few (current) Western markets thanks to a lack of heavy tariffs like those imposed by the U.S. Despite the low-rent branding–which has led to corporate intervention—Australian buyers fell in love with the low-cost BYD Atto 3, which ended 2023 as the country’s third biggest-selling EV. Right behind it was MG’s MG4, which finished fourth despite only going on sale halfway through the year. 

BYD Atto 3

New vehicles from BYD like the Seal (March 2024’s fourth best-selling EV) and Dolphin (in sixth place) should further cement the company’s presence in Australia. And as Kia, Hyundai, Polestar, Volvo, BMW (and more) ramp up their own product offerings, and Volkswagen belatedly brings the ID range down under, Australians are increasingly getting the opportunity to really shop around for an EV.

BYD Dolphin AUS

But Mate, Can I Chuck The Kids In The Back?

While I’ve already listed a number of infrastructure and pricing roadblocks to EV adoption, there are also some cultural barriers to overcome. Australia is, after all, a nation whose automotive heritage is inexorably linked with the big petrol engines of the Ford v Holden era. 

While those days are all but over, as it’s been almost a decade since the end of local manufacturing of the Commodore and Falcon, Australia is still a country obsessed with petrol-guzzling family cars. We’ve just replaced the sedans of old with the giant pickups of the 21st century.

Australia’s three top-selling cars for 2023 were all big utes. The Ford Ranger, Toyota Hilux and Isuzu D-Max sold 155,000 cars combined, which constituted 12.7% of the total Australian car market. And while it’s a lazy stereotype to suggest these are also the same buyers who would scoff at the very idea of driving an electric car, there’s a practical side to these sales numbers: the Australian workers and families buying these big cars don’t have much choice in the market, whether they want an EV equivalent or not, because there simply aren’t any electrified versions of those best-sellers available. 

Toyota EPU Pickup Truck Concept

Toyota EPU Pickup Truck Concept

Rivian doesn’t sell cars in Australia, there’s no sign of Ford’s F-150 Lightning, BYD’s pickup is still TBD and while Toyota has unveiled an electrified ute concept, and Isuzu an electric D-Max, it could be years until they hit the market. 

The Road Ahead

While Australia’s road to EV adoption has been a rocky one so far, there’s a chance at a brighter future ahead, provided governments can take necessary action that goes beyond individual states offering (and in some cases now pulling) inconsistent purchasing incentives. 

Manufacturers are doing what they can, as electric cars arrive in greater numbers and more affordable pricing than ever before, but until buyers are confident that there’s a robust infrastructure around the nation to support them wherever they’re used to driving—and electric versions of the types of cars most popular in the local market become available—many Aussies will remain understandably reluctant to make the switch. 

Luke Plunkett is a veteran Australian journalist who has appeared everywhere from Gawker to Fast Company to NPR to High Snobiety. A co-founder and co-owner of the gaming news site Aftermath, he has a big dog, a small cat and a Polestar 2.

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