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German brands fight for EV infrastructure

Plugging along: A recent European joint venture will see 400 high-speed charging stations spring up around the continent, and Australia could follow suit in time.

Big three German premium brands could join forces for Australian EV network

9 Dec 2016

TRADITIONAL rivals Audi, BMW and Mercedes say they are all willing to collaborate on national EV infrastructure that would accelerate the viability of low and zero-emissions vehicles, given the lack of support from the federal government.

Despite persistent lobbying by the three car-makers, the government is yet to roll out its first significant incentive for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, forcing the brands to act alone, but there is strength in numbers, they say.

In Europe, the big three have recently announced that they would work together with Volkswagen, Porsche and Ford to create a 400-strong network of 350kW fast charging stations to encourage more motorists to adopt alternative energy, and a similar strategy could be applied Down Under.

Speaking to GoAuto, BMW Group Australia corporate communications general manager Lenore Fletcher said the company would “absolutely” consider a collaboration with its key rivals if it brought the widespread adoption of plug-n hybrids and EVs closer.

“We see the more discussion, the more collaboration and the more awareness in promoting or purchasing of lower emission vehicles in Australia, the better it is for the entire industry and the better it is for the environment ultimately,” she said.

While the car-maker is yet to approach another in the initial stages of a collaborative project, Ms Fletcher said the Australian electrification landscape was naturally pushing the various brands together.

“We’re already pretty much doing that. There is very much an industry movement towards amplification of this issue within the local government bodies and agencies. Have we worked on a specific project as this? No, but we are certainly talking to the agencies like the FCAI (Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries).

“I don’t think I would be speaking out of turn if I said every brand is very conscious of it and very positive about it.”

Ms Fletcher explained that joining forces with other car-makers does not only have the potential to kick-start major infrastructure projects, but also makes the need for EV more visible to the government.

“We are a bit of a different proposition to Europe in that there is not the awareness here and there is not the commitment to (combating) climate change or sustainability. What these kind of collaborations can do is spotlight the changes that we need to make as a nation and highlight the issue for government.”

Rival, but perhaps soon-to-be ally, Mercedes-Benz, also highlighted the importance of government participation if the long-term viability of alternative energy was to become a reality.

Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific senior manager of public relations, product and corporate communications David McCarthy echoed Ms Fletcher, saying the company would “absolutely” welcome team talks with other brands.

“We’re very open to the discussion. Anything that allows us to introduce vehicles that are going to reduce emission is a positive thing,” he said.

While Mr McCarthy said the company was willing to keep investing in EV networks either acting alone or with the combined effort of an ally, government support was critical to the ultimate success of alternative energy.

“What’s missing in Australia is any commitment from government for infrastructure of this nature. State government has done a little here and there but the reality is, until there is some infrastructure it’s going to be very difficult to get critical mass with electric cars.

“Whilst we haven’t had any (joint venture) discussions in Australia because our parent companies already have, I suspect that discussion will take place some time in the future. The difference being, we really need buy in from governments in Australia.

“One of the reasons we are doing it in Europe is we want to speed up the rollout and whilst the government in Europe is doing quite a lot with incentives and also infrastructure, it needs a boost. In Australia we need to actually start.”

As FCAI communications committee chair, Mr McCarthy highlighted another area in which the government could be making significant emissions reductions.

“Recently the government has been talking about bringing in some tough car emission rules. How about you improve fuel quality? Until you improve fuel quality the emission reductions they think they are going to get, they won’t get. Give us some first-world fuel.”

While the government has previously engaged in discussions with the FCAI and car-makers, Mr McCarthy explained that it was becoming increasingly frustrating that it had not yet resulted in any action.

“It would be really welcome if all governments of all colours sat down, listened to the industry and said ‘how can we achieve this common goal?’ Those discussions happen all the time but what would be really good is an outcome.

“Talk is cheap, charging stations aren’t,” he concluded.

Weighing into the collaboration argument, Audi Australia was less committed to the cause but corporate communications manager Anna Burgdorf said it was the role of prestige brands to lead the way in new technology, including alternative energy.

“It would be too early for me to comment on that, but we are in the market to sell cars to consumers who can use and enjoy the full benefits of motoring,” she said. “In general, premium brands are prepared to invest in the market.

“That’s the way alternative mobility is heading anyway so we, like a number of other brands, value research and think of ourselves as innovators and pioneers.

This technology is important because that’s the way the world will go.”

Ms Burgdorf said the company was looking at supporting the electric vehicle cause in more ways than simply offering plug-in hybrid and electric models.

“We invest now in things like our e-tron network. There is no shortage of change that we will see in this space in the coming couple of years.”

Audi is yet to officially confirm that the pure electric vehicle that will arrive before 2020 will come Down Under and Ms Burgdorf said the car would be introduced if the charging network could be established in time.

“I think there will be a market for it and the only thing that’s really holding us up a little bit in Australia is the network and just the facilities to be able to manage more electric vehicles given the size of the country and the amount of driving that people do, but we certainly plan to have that vehicle in Australia.

“We are interested in seeing future technology made possible here as a general rule.”

While establishing a widespread infrastructure is the next formidable challenge facing all car-makers that want to jump on the electric bandwagon, Audi, BMW and Mercedes have all started the ball rolling with a number of pioneering models already for sale in Australia.

Audi has the A3 e-tron PHEV hatchback with more e-tron models likely to be on the way including the Q7 e-tron and as-yet unnamed pure EV due before the decade is out.

BMW has the i3 and i8 EV and hybrid pair as well as a growing number of plug-in versions of its passenger and SUV ranges, which currently extends to the X5 xDrive40e, 330e and 740e. A new i-car will also be unveiled before 2020.

Mercedes currently offers the large limo S500e PHEV and smaller C350e PHEV but will introduce a new wave of models in 2019 with the arrival of the EQ-Class family.

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