Yesterday Federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd announced a $500 million “Green Car Innovation Fund” designed to generate $2 billion in investment to secure jobs in the automotive industry and tackle climate change by manufacturing low emission vehicles in Australia.

Which is all very good, but begs the question, where is the dinky-di Aussie hybrid – the ECOmmodore – unveiled by Holden and the CSIRO almost seven years ago?

The short answer is simple. It now resides at the Powerhouse Museum. The car was never intended as a prototype. It was a concept car developed by Holden as a marketing tool for the Olympic Games. It followed the Olympic torch around the nation, and was then consigned to history.

David Lamb, who oversaw the production of the car at the CSIRO, told Crikey that it was a lack of community interest in fuel efficiency – and the losses industry would take – that scuttled any hope of the ECOmmodore becoming commercially available.

Last year, AWU boss and sometime saviour of the federal ALP Bill Shorten had a hybrid epiphany of his own. He says local production of hybrid vehicles could evolve in two steps.

Shorten says we could import hybrid power trains – the system of bearings, shafts, and gears that transmit the engine’s power to the axle – so hybrid vehicles could be assembled in Australia.

Shorten claims, “By my estimates, based on the experience at Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, US, it would cost $20 million and take less than a year to reconfigure a production line in Australia that would be capable of assembling up to 48,000 hybrid vehicles annually.

However, he adds, “Taking the next step of manufacturing hybrid power trains for local use and export would be a much bigger, costlier project.”

He isn’t kidding there. The power train is one of a car’s most complicated parts. And there are other complications in the Shorten plan, too.

Former Industry Minister John Button gave Crikey readers an excellent brief on the Australian car industry last week. Exports and technology, he said, are the keys to the future. That and the minor matter of making cars people actually want to buy (see the sad tale of the Mitsubishi 380).

Stage one of the Shorten plan looks like a throwback to the 70s and before, to the age of the TKD, the total knockdown, cars manufactured overseas that were shipped to Australia in bits and pieces then bolted together locally. There’s no future and no flow-on from that.

Then there’s the politics. Shorten singled out Toyota, the manufacturers of the best-known hybrid, the Prius. Toyota’s main plant is in Altona, in Melbourne, his hometown.

Rudd made his comments at the Futuris car seat plant in Adelaide’s north, in the seat of Wakefield, a Liberal marginal he hopes to win later this year. Head a few kilometres south and you’re in Makin, another Liberal marginal, one made even more winnable by a retiring MP. Jump across the federal seat of Adelaide – already Labor held – and you’re in Boothby. That’s the site of Mitsubishi’s Australian plant, which federal and state pols freely admit in private they believe could shut down at any time, and another Liberal seat – safer, this time, but with a lacklustre MP and in striking distance if the polls in SA are as good as they seem.

But back to Wakefield. Rudd was at Futuris, but the largest employer in the electorate by far is Holden, a company with a good export focus, but one that announced at the beginning of the month it was shedding 600 jobs.

Which brings us back to the ECOmmodore. There could be three seats for Labor in asking, what happens now with the dinky-di Aussie hybrid?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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