Some say Australia’s full-scale car-making days are gone. But situations, facts and figures at the moment paint a different image of what’s possible. And it could be big.
January 2023 has been a tough month for the UK’s car industry.
Britishvolt, a startup which aimed to establish a major electric vehicle (EV) battery factory in the country’s north, went into administration when it didn’t secure the funding it needed.
Australia should pay attention to this situation. Despite being on the other side of the world, and the fact that Australia’s Recharge Industries has emerged as a potential buyer of the ailing start-up, Britishvolt has triggered a discussion that applies to our own car industry, and the hopes we currently hold for it.
Sure, start-ups don’t always secure the money they need. But Britishvolt has brought to the surface some realities car-making nations need to face.
And in the case of the UK, that topic is industry viability.
Driving this survival question is the country’s lack of EV battery manufacturing capabilities, which some claim is essential for the UK car industry’s future.
Some experts say that for the UK to continue as an automaking nation, the country needs four to six large EV battery plants. Nissan’s 1.9 gigawatt-hour Sunderland plant is its only one. The company is building a second UK plant with Chinese partner Envision AESC.
Automotive News Europe’s report on Britishvolt’s woes includes a major claim by a highly experienced global car industry veteran, who made this claim:
“Ultimately, British car manufacturing will migrate to where the battery factories are, which is going to be in central Europe.”
If he’s right, it means countries that make EV batteries are more likely to be making EVs.
And this shines a light on a critical opportunity for Australia.
The Age newspaper outlined this opportunity in a recent article. Australia is home to some of the world’s biggest reserves of the essential minerals needed to create EV batteries.
We’re known as the world’s top producer of lithium. We also produce cobalt, nickel and manganese ore in vast quantities. But we export almost all of them to supply other countries’ manufacturing industries.
And it’s rewarding them handsomely.
Here’s just one example from The Age’s report:
Australia produces 55% of the world’s lithium. China refines 97% of our lithium exports. China is home to 75% of the world’s battery cell production (Europe, the US, Japan and Korea all follow, each with single-figure percentage shares). And China is home to 55% of the world’s EV production.
Here’s the obvious point: Australia should be a large-scale EV battery manufacturer.
The barriers to doing this aren’t higher local labour costs and the usual “why we can’t” reasons, the type that have hung around for too long when it comes to ideas of mass manufacturing in Australia.
As Shannon O’Rourke from Australia’s Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre says:
“This is a once-in-a-century opportunity.”
And if the claims made in Automotive News Europe’s article are true, and those claims are certainly reasonable, then countries that make EV batteries open the door to becoming EV makers.
This is how Australia could put itself in pole position.
Some will argue the numbers won’t stack up for Australia to become a full-scale carmaking country again, this time with EVs. But if we mimic much of what the US and China do to attract the necessary investment and support to become a full-scale carmaker, then it’s achievable.
You need to remember that, despite their large sizes, China and the US face the same problems with their car-making industries that every other car-making nation faces: they need battery-makers and automakers to set up shop in their countries (this is a key reason why they can create their own); they need to attract the right investment; they need governments at all levels to make it easy to manufacture there; they need their universities and technical colleges to develop curricula and training programs to feed these industries; and so on.
But with the right government support and the right drive to get it done, it’s all possible.
We’ve been in OEM carmaking for nearly 27 years. We’ve developed EV platforms and EV conversion programs, alongside hundreds of other new-vehicle development programs.
Australia has so much of the necessary car-making technical know-how (creating this is the difficult bit). We also have the battery minerals everyone needs (having these puts us in the box seat). We just need to take the next steps – the long and hard road – to own the entire value chain, from earth, to batteries to electric vehicles.
Becoming a full-scale carmaker is more than possible for Australia.
And this time we can add a battery industry to the equation. It will be difficult, but enormously profitable for our economy and society for the longer-term.
Setting up our country’s future for generations to come by putting Australia back on the global car-making map is the major opportunity staring at us right now.
And it’s great to see the Albanese government believes it’s possible. Because it is.
Bernie Quinn – Engineering Director, Premcar Pty Ltd
About Premcar – Premcar Pty Ltd is a leading Australian vehicle engineering business that specialises in the automotive, defence and aerospace industries. For more than 25 years, global car-makers have made Premcar their go-to partner for the complete design, engineering and manufacture of niche-model new cars, full-scale new-vehicle development programs, and electric vehicle (EV) conversions and manufacturing. As the name behind more than 200,000 new cars and 55,000 new-vehicle engines, Premcar’s body of work is extensive and has delivered technical and sales success for major car brands from Europe, the USA, Japan, China and Australia. Visit premcar.com.
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