The Inconvenient Truth of Driving an Electric Car in Australia

I recently got to road-test Jaguar’s new I-Pace SUV, and couldn’t have enjoyed it more. Taking it on a 300-kilometre loop south of Sydney, I fell in love.

Jaguar’s first EV SUV had won me over with its power, precision and luxury, and I was keen to spend more time with it, with a particular eagerness to know how practical it was to own one in Sydney in 2019.

The following tale is of a man who spent his week doggedly trying to focus on the positives of this beautiful piece of Jag design, in a country that – to be honest – just isn’t yet ready for it.

The I-Pace boasts a range of 480 kilometres in its battery life, so on day one I scooped up a mate and we headed north to spend a night in Newcastle on a golf trip. The car was everything I’d remembered – darting between traffic with its ultra-responsive battery power, a truly sexy cockpit and all the trimmings in the land, we were both feeling like the kind of masters that drive $120,000 cars on golf trips.

Regardless, it was early in the piece that I experienced my first pang of ‘battery-anxiety.’ On the dashboard behind the wheel it states the ‘Battery Charge Percentage’ the ‘Estimated Range’ and even though the range listed 350 kilometres and Newcastle was only 100 clicks down the road, the nagging awareness that at zero per cent battery charge, the car would be dead, was very present, and I’ll be honest, it didn’t go away.

If you had 350 kilometres of fuel left, you wouldn’t think twice, but in 2019 there aren’t charge stations every few kilometres – there aren’t any on the M1 from Sydney to Newcastle – and knowing how much power you had in the tank just feels more relevant.

That said, I had this car to learn how it all plays out in the real world, and so northbound we went.

The trip up was seamless. It whipped up the M1, turning heads of passers-by when we stopped for food at a service centre, the sound system was pumping and the quality of the drive was everything I had remembered. This was driving heaven. We landed in Newcastle, played a round of golf, went to the beach, and headed for the hotel. It was here that the realities of life in an EV started to sharpen in to focus.

I will be the first to put my hand up and say I was naïve when I set off for my journey in what was in front of me. I didn’t pre-research where any charge points were, I didn’t look into what different voltages of charge points meant time-wise and I didn’t really pay attention to what long-haul driving did to the battery of EV cars. All I knew was my car said it could go 480 kilometres, I was told it had flash charging capabilities of 80 per cent charge in 45 minutes, and the rest I was sure I could figure out.

It was 6pm on the Friday and the car told me I had around 90 Ks left of range. This wasn’t an issue, as I’d race-it up to a charge point for 45 minutes and be back in time for a 7:30 schooner. The PlugShare app told me the nearest ‘ChargePoint’ (a company that does chargers) was 10 ks away, at a shopping mall. It wasn’t ideal, but I had time, so I went up and plugged it in.

Nothing happened.

I tried again. Nothing happened. I confirmed I wasn’t using the Tesla cable (they don’t cross over) – I wasn’t — And tried again.

Nothing.

Annoyed but largely blaming myself as I was probably doing something wrong – I called the ChargePoint hotline and was told the entire network was rebooting, and that it’d be back online in half an hour. Shit. My schooner would now be 8, but that’s ok–the night was young.

I waited half an hour and called back, the helpful guy on the phone regrettably told me that while the network was back online, the franchisee of this ChargePoint had not renewed his lease and so it wasn’t working, but that there was one another 20 minutes up the road. I didn’t have time for that, or desire. Beers were waiting, and so I bailed on the plan.

This was by no means Jaguar’s fault, but it was a frustrating reality that I had now wasted an hour looking for juice only to learn the single charge point in the area was down but still listed in directories. I returned to the hotel 20 kilometres lighter on power and now I’d need to charge during the day before heading home rather than at night (I did search for a power point in the hotel car park when I got back, but found no joy.)

Beers and fun were had that night, and we woke in the morning a bit dusty, and headed off for 18 holes of golf. It was a 15-kilometre journey to the course, and despite playing it cool I was rather alert to the now double-digit range-estimator on my dash. When we got to the course we were at 40 Ks of juice left. It was here that I started to realise the range estimator isn’t as reliable as a fuel gauge – and the 480 kilometres I was promised was going to be falling well short.

We finished golf at two and looked to make a hasty exit to find the next charge point, zap it, and head home. There were three others listed in Newcastle (one, a car dealership which didn’t actually have one) and so instead I called Hunter Jaguar and asked if we could power-up there; it was 24.7 Ks away and we had 35 on the range. I’d lost faith in my little range estimator, but was sure we’d be fine.

We turned off the air-con and radio which added a few Ks of buffer while reducing a few degrees of passenger comfort, and with as much rolling and braking as possible we were on our way.

Let me tell you right now – you don’t know living until you’re driving an EV with single digits power in a foreign town. Unlike petrol power, when, if you run out of fuel someone can bring you a jerry can, here we’d need to be towed to a place that probably didn’t have a fast-charger and on a 35 degree Newcastle day that sounded all shades of shit. The estimator was dropping faster than the distance we were travelling and the distance-to-go started to outweigh distance-left-in-battery. I mean this when I say we pulled into the Hunter Jag dealership with zero per cent battery. It hit zero with about 500 metres to go and mercifully it held on.

The helpful chap at the dealership put us straight on the charge and told us the car would be ready to go in about five hours.

What? five hours!?

My dream of a 45-minute power burst was in smoke. It turns out that charge speed is for when you use a 100kW charge station; the one here at the dealership was 25kW. To put things into even more perspective, the charger at the shopping centre that was down was 6.6kW (The NRMA is rolling out 50kW chargers across the state).

Make this note clear: if you need to pull in for power on your drive you won’t be heading off in a hurry. It also struck me that at each of the charge-stations I’d seen there was only the single power port, meaning if you got there after someone else you’d be doubling your wait time. It was becoming clear that the infrastructure in Australia is simply not ready for my beautiful Jaguar on a long-run.

So, at six pm, four hours after golf and many many bets on regional races later we picked up our car from the dealership. Due to the heat of the battery, we were only able to get 180 kilometres of range in the battery before they were shutting for the day and we’d have needed to leave it overnight, but as it was only 100 clicks back to Sydney, we were sure we’d be ok.

That faith may have been slightly misplaced.

We were powered and driving as kings for the first half of the trip, but ease turned to dread as again the battery started dropping faster than the kilometres left. For the final 20 kilometres, off went the radio, off went the aircon, and, again, out came any phone chargers, as for the second time in a day we were nearing blackout. I had abandoned plans to drive home, all we wanted to do was reach the end of the M1: at least at a servo there would be a wall charger.

At the final turn off the highway, we’d again hit zero per cent (an 80-kilometre difference in estimation and actual distance) and the car slowed into its survival low-power mode. We crawled into the first service station we could find and, almost like a drug addict needing a hit, were elated when we found an accessible regulation wall-charger to plug into.

Now, wall chargers are the slowest way you can charge a car, and even though all we needed was 20 kilometres of juice to get us home, this wasn’t going to be quick. By this stage it was 7:30 at night, and, due to the heat of the battery, one hour spent sitting alongside the car took us all the way from zero per cent charge to zero per cent charge, and a decision was made to lock up the car, Uber home, and go try again in the morning.

Remarkably, my goodwill for the car was not diminishing; it remained a stunning piece of work. I was mostly blaming myself for not being better prepared, and Australia for being so bloody big. I returned the next morning and, in much cooler conditions, was able to get 20 kilometres on the clock in 50 minutes.

I set off for my brother’s house at Hunters Hill – 16 kilometres away – and couldn’t believe how luxurious 20 kilometres felt in comparison to where we’d been. Sadly, and I’m not even kidding, again the charge dropped faster than estimated and for the third time in my life, I was driving at zero per cent for the final 500 metres of my journey.

I crawled into his garage, put it on the powerpoint, borrowed his car, got home and collapsed onto the bed.

The car spent the next 12 hours on the charge at his house and made it to about half-way to full. At least from here I was able start driving the car like it was designed to be driven – point to point over a short distance – and it was great. I live in a unit complex which has a shared private carpark, and work in the city with the same situation – at both ends I was able to find a wall point, and a bit like a thief in the dark (sorry if the building manager is reading this) would find myself driving late at night to the power point, charging, and leaving early the next morning.

In fact, every time I entered any car park I would be looking for power points–it really did change the way I lived for a week.

My whole purpose for borrowing this car was to see what it was like to drive an EV in 2019, and the reality is that while the car is amazing, unless you have a private garage, a specialised wall charger, and no desire to leave the greater-city limits, the infrastructure just isn’t there.

Boasting a range of 480 kilometres invokes the idea of taking it on long-haul drives, but on flat highways with no breaking and high temps, that number is much lower. With charge times so great, my two-hour drive home from Newcastle took 19 hours.

It’s not Jaguar’s fault that the one charge station I went to was rebooting, then had been decommissioned, or that I was driving out of business hours meaning access to power was limited, but it is a reality of choosing an EV that many more factors need to be considered that aren’t a part of petrol-driving.

The Jaguar I-Pace is a bloody beautiful car – even handing it back I felt like I was losing a mate who had been with me through some very serious emotional times over the past seven days. But it’s also the case right now that driving an EV just isn’t as convenient as a petrol, or diesel, car.

It will be, but just not yet.