Better Place (Australia) Pty. Ltd. predicts up to 20% of Australian vehicles could be emissions-free by 2020.

CEO Evan Thornley says the change will be brought about by motorists who live in outer suburbs and drive larger cars with annual fuel bills of up to A$6,000 ($5,503).

He tells the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s “Inside Business” program that with 51 new plug-in models planned to be in the world market by 2012, there will a tipping point in the industry in the next few years.

Growth in sales of emissions-free vehicles in Australia will become very steep, with the complete conversion to electric vehicles possible within 20 to 30 years, Thornley predicts.

“Battery prices are going down, (gasoline) prices are going up – that tells you what's going to happen,” he says. “It's just a question of how long that takes.”

Thornley says the transition will provide an enormous opportunity for local car makers given their experience in building large cars. “It's what customers want in this country; it's what we know how to build; it's where the money is.”

He says the 2-million-member strong auto club and insurer Royal Automobile Club of Victoria Ltd. (RACV) is investing A$2 million ($1.8 million) in Better Place Australia to speed up the building of infrastructure to support plug-in cars.

Brian Negus, RACV general manager-public policy, says the strategic investment in the Better Place project is a demonstration of RACV’s commitment to sustainable transport technologies.

The partnership could include charge-spot installations at RACV properties, joint marketing initiatives, roadside-assistance services and insurance coverage, Negus says.

RACV also will engage in other joint initiatives to help Australians move towards increased adoption of electric vehicles.

“RACV members continually tell us they are concerned about (gasoline) prices and are increasingly looking for ways to cut the environmental impact of driving,” Negus says in a statement. “Both of these issues can be addressed by electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.”

Better Place Australia says it has raised A$25 million ($23 million) in initial funding, including money from Melbourne University and a handful of private investors.

The company aims to raise A$1 billion ($917 million) over the next three years, most of it shortly before the infrastructure rollout accelerates in late 2012.

Thornley says funds raised so far will be used for early network planning and demonstrations. “'We're going very early with the charge network,” he tells the Herald Sun newspaper.

“With a combination of a large number of plug-in points and a small number of battery-swapping stations, mainly on the outer rims of our major cities and the big connecting highways, you'll be able to drive wherever you want, whenever you want.”

Despite Thornley’s enthusiasm, market-research company IBISWorld Pty. Ltd. says Australians are slowly taking up “green” vehicles, with sales of hybrid cars accounting for just 1.1% of the market so far this year, up from about 1% in 2009.

IBISWorld predicts hybrids will account for 13% of local car sales by 2020, or about 150,000 units a year, Melbourne’s The Age newspaper reports.

“It seems the transition to hybrids, or other more environmentally friendly cars, is off to a slow start in Australia,” IBISWorld General Manager Robert Bryant is quoted as saying.

“The primary challenge for hybrid manufacturers will be converting Australians from our longstanding love of hot-rods.”

IBISWorld says this is unlikely to change until fuel prices hit at least A$2 a liter ($6.94 a gallon), well above the current A$1.38 a liter ($4.78 a gallon).