Robyn Denholm, who became the Chair of Tesla’s board in 2018, after the SEC forced Elon Musk to relinquish the position, recently expressed disappointment about the politics of EVs in her native Australia.
At a webinar hosted by the Electric Vehicle Council of Australia (as reported by Aussie EV news source The Driven), she pointed out that Australia has historically been an enthusiastic adopter of new technology, but that is not happening when it comes to EVs, because the technology has become politicized.
“From an Australian perspective we are lagging in terms of adoption rate—the stats prove it—which is quite unusual for us,” Denholm said. “I’m a tech optimist, but I also know, having been in the tech world for over 30 years, that [Australians] tend to be an early adopter of technology. It doesn’t matter which industry—we’ve been on that early curve.”
In 2019, EVs became a bone of contention in the Australian federal election. Both the incumbent Coalition and the challenging Labor party claimed they were keen to encourage e-mobility, but they clashed over numerical targets, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison painted Labor’s more ambitious EV adoption goal as a threat to Australians’ beloved SUVs and even their outdoorsy way of life. He warned in a radio interview that the Labor Party wanted to “end the weekend.”
“The last election was very telling in terms of misinformation that was in the market place,” said Denholm. “People still think they can’t…do regular commutes with an electric vehicle without topping up, and that is not the case.”
Despite the lack of federal leadership on electrification, Denholm pointed out that Australia has plenty of “brilliant engineers” and raw materials for batteries, and that both would be better put to use to develop a domestic EV industry, rather than being exported.
“We have the opportunity of being a superpower in this renewable energy space because a lot of the components that go into an electric vehicle, particularly on the battery side, we have here, and most countries don’t. [However,] we ship out the raw materials.”
Above: Tesla Chair Robyn Denholm sits down with Electric Vehicle Council of Australia's CEO Behyad Jafari (YouTube: Electric Vehicle Council of Australia)
Technological shifts can transform industries, leading to huge opportunities, but clear and consistent government policy is critical, said Denholm. “Whether it’s on the emissions side and creating certainty about reduction in emissions…whether it’s on the charging infrastructure side…having policy certainty over a horizon [and] making it attractive to industry to get behind it [will ensure] the rest of it will happen.”
The government needs to “embrace the new technology around renewable energy and electric vehicles, and create an opportunity for Australia not just to use the technology, but to be a player in the technology,” she said.
Australia’s Federal Financial Relations Review recently recommended that the government impose a road user charge for electric vehicles, an idea that Denholm called “a bit crazy” (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald). “It’s not just about the disincentive for electric vehicles, but it’s actually denying consumers the opportunity of participating in new technology,” she said. “To add a premium on top of the use of that new technology seems a strange concept to me.”
Does Tesla have any plans to manufacture cars in Australia? Not for the moment, Denholm says. The company has plenty on its plate: preparing for Model Y production in Shanghai; building a fourth Gigafactory in Berlin; and planning a new Gigafactory in the US to build the game-changing Cybertruck.
As ambitious as these projects are, Tesla’s mission is much larger: electrifying the entire global auto industry. “From the beginning, it wasn’t about us being the only electric vehicle company,” said Denholm, adding that the current wave of new EVs from the legacy automakers is a sign of success for Tesla.
“It’s definitely a 24x7 company. It doesn’t sleep, because the mission is still in front of us, and not accomplished.”