Colin ‘Wheelie’ Dawson with his Tesla, prior to changing the number plate to ‘HIREEV’.
“It’s Wheelie’s Private Hire because I’m actually in a wheelchair,” said Colin, explaining he had been in a wheelchair since finding himself in “the wrong place at the wrong time” on a motorbike at the age of 18.
“I’m the first person in a wheelchair ever in the Northern Territory to have a commercial driver’s licence,” he said.
It was a challenge to gain the medical approval, despite a clean record of private driving over the previous two decades. A doctor was unconvinced customers would feel safe in the hands of someone with paraplegia.
“I stormed out of the surgery, collected 200 signatures stating otherwise, and presented them to the doctor,” said Colin.
“People with a disability are often looked down upon. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder and I like to prove them wrong!”
Colin, more frequently referred to as ‘Wheelie’, bought his ex-demo Tesla Model S 75D in November, prompting a huge amount of interest in the Alice Springs community.
He clocked up 170 jobs in December, and 260 in January, matching that figure in February. The business has taken a hit during the coronavirus crisis, but it’s still ticking along.
Under regular circumstances, most of the jobs are within the town area of Alice Springs, with some people hiring Wheelie’s services purely for the joy of riding in a Tesla.
“You get tourists Snapchatting about it on the way to the airport,” he said.
Colin uses portable hand controls to operate the pedals, which are transferable to any automatic vehicle. Passenger luggage is stored in the bonnet, which can be opened automatically. A wheelchair sits in the boot, in case he needs to get out and about. A charging cable is also in the boot, so he can power up at any of the handful of charging locations in Alice Springs.
Storage room is plentiful because the battery is located in the floor of the vehicle, and customers are particularly taken with the dazzling white leather interior.
“Once you drive an electric car you don’t want to drive a combustion car. It’s so smooth, so slick, so nice to drive,” said Colin.
To the uninitiated, the experience behind the wheel is a little different in an electric vehicle.
“As soon as you stop accelerating, the motor goes into reverse and it brakes itself automatically,” he said.
“When you first start driving it, it’s quite a shock. But when you get used to it, it’s quite beautiful because the car slows down all by itself. You only need to touch the brakes if you need to come to a complete stop.”
As for charging, Colin had a charging point hard-wired into his garage, and he charges overnight with a couple of top ups in town during the day.
He is already looking to upgrade his personal charger, and believes a public Tesla supercharger would be one way for Alice Springs to stay ahead of the curve in its support for EVs.
“There are already five Teslas in town, and that says it all,” said Colin, when asked about his predictions for growth in the adoption of EVs locally.
The number of EVs in town is somewhere between two and three times the number of Teslas. Colin believes more accessible local information would help grow people’s confidence to invest, and tourists’ confidence to bring their EVs to Central Australia. He’d like to see a local charging hub developed, where EV drivers can congregate and compare notes over coffee.
When it comes to servicing, there is pretty much no such thing. The brakes last for up to 100,000km, and the main battery has a lifespan of more than 500,000km with a warranty of eight years. Problems are resolved through software upgrades, and general maintenance like cleaning air conditioning filters can be carried out without particular expertise.
When Wheelie’s Private Hire is between bookings, Colin demonstrated how he can recline the seat and use the control panel as an entertainment centre.
“It is comfortable. When I want to, I can just sit there with shades on the window and watch Netflix,” he said.