Electric vehicle incentive legislation kicks in – but Auckland Transport not playing ball

PLUS: Record electric vehicle registrations, Volvo sets date to go all-electric, Foodstuffs, Warehouse score EV grants.
Passersby check out Tesla vehicles during a demo at Auckland's Britomart on June 22 (photo: Chris Keall)

I have a dream of buying an electric car, then driving down the bus lane on Auckland’s northern motorway, zooming past the gridlocked rush hour traffic.

I’ve had it ever since May last year, when Transport Minister Simon Bridges outlined a series of incentives to encourage elective vehicle update – including using T2 and bus lanes on motorways and other roads.

The special lane incentive has made me seriously consider purchasing an eligible car (that is, an all-electric or plug-in hybrid; hybrids like the Toyota that don’t have to be plugged into the wall don’t qualify).

When the Energy Innovation (Electric Vehicles and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2017 passed recently (it came into effect July 1), my dream seemed closer than ever ... until I read the fine print.

The act waters things down so local road-controlling authorities are given the power to allow EVs to drive in bus lanes … and it doesn’t seem as though they want to.

In my neck of the woods, the road-controlling authorities are NZTA (motorways) and Auckland Transport (the rest).

Auckland Transport external relations manager Mark Hannan says his agency has no plans for a trial, which would have to precede any decision to let EVs into special lanes. “The numbers just aren’t there,” he says. “We’re focused on public transport.”

It’s a similar story in Wellington and Christchurch.

Telsla's arrival in New Zealand in the new year helped electric vehicle registrations reach a record 280 last month for a total 3700.

The motorway situation seems a lot more promising, however.

NZTA did hold a limited trial in March and is working on a followup.

An NZTA spokeswoman notes that tweaks will also have to made to the Land Transport Act (1988) and the Land Transport Road User Rule (2004) to fully empower the agency to let EVs drive in special lanes.

But in anticipation of those changes, NZTA is consulting on a bylaw that would allow a 12-month trial involving EVs being able to drive on 11 priority bypass lanes around the Auckland motorway system — but like the March trial, they're only onramps, not bus lanes on the motorways themselves.

Patrick Reynolds, with advocacy group Greater Auckland, says the measure is senseless. It could clog up bus lanes, and just means the same or more cars on the road at a time when the emphasis needs to be on public transport options.

I'd argue that there is a major difference: EVs have no emissions. And, besides, the bus lanes are largely empty at the moment (Mr Reynolds' cohort at Greater Auckland, Matt Lowrie, argues that bus lane traffic is heavy in areas around the CBD, and that a T2 trial along Tamaki Drive a few years ago showed that even a small number of vehicles in a special lane can cause logjams when a bus stops and they try to swing out into regular traffic. He concedes some special lanes could accommodate EVs, but says it would create too much confusion to have different rules for lanes just a few blocks apart).

If or when EVs reach the government's target of 64,000 is reached, the policy could be reassessed.

Besides, even though the special lane perk jolts me out of my lethargy and makes me seriously consider an EV purchase, a lot of electric vehicle owners think differently. My little brother, for example, owns a Nissan Leaf but says he would never drive in a bus or T2 lane because of his belief in public transport. I can't comprehend that thinking, but there you go; a lot of EV owners will probably think along similar lines.

Road User Charges wiped
Whatever eventually happens with special lanes, the act that came into force on July 1 does have a number of other perks for EV owners. The key one is that they will be let off the road user charges that usually apply to the owners of non-petrol vehicles. It’s estimated that will save the average EV owner around $600 a year (and that’s in the context of EVs already being cheaper to run; the AA says the cost of charge equates to paying 30c a litre for petrol).

Foodstuffs (owner of Pak N Save, New World and Four Square) has bought 28 Nissan e-NV 200 electric delivery vans with its $500,000 grant from the government's EV incentive fund. The vans have a 150km range. At full retail price, they would have cost Foodstuffs around $1 million.

First round of funding for incentive scheme
And the government separately created a $6 million EV incentive fund, being allocated at the rate of $3 million a year.

The first round of grants have already been allocated (see table below), with recipients including Foodstuffs for a pilot involving 28 electric delivery vans, and just under $100,000 to The Warehouse for EV charging stations at 20 locations (charging stations are a common theme of the grants). Half a million dollars was also given to Mevo, the Wellington ride-sharing startup that lets you access one of the electric Audis in its fleet for $23 an hour.

Foodstuffs North Island chief executive Chris Quin says his company has already bought the 28 electric vans, and is in the process of deploying them.

Record electric vehicle registrations
It has also helped that Telsa officially set up shop in New Zealand in the New Year with a showroom in the old Ponsonby Fire Station in Auckland (at the moment it’s a pop-up presence; a purposebuilt service centre and showroom will open on Karangahape Rd in around two months, near the site of the old Telecom building).

No wonder electric vehicle registrations hit a record 280 last month for a total 3700 (the government’s incentives are aimed at getting EVs to the point where they are 2% of the light vehicle fleet, which would mean 64,000 on the road). Incentives will be revisited at that point, which the government is targetting by 2021.

To put that 280 figure in contest, the Motor Industry Association says a record 15,985 new vehicles were registered in June, and 79,131 in the year-to-date.

EV action continues to ramp up. Overnight, Volvo Car announced that by 2019, every new car in it manufactures will have an electric motor, either fully electric or hybrid.

The first round of grants from the government's $20 million electric vehicle incentives fund. Click to zoom.

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