As global awareness of climate change grows, consumers are becoming more attuned to the environmental impact of their activities, including the vehicles they purchase…In this environment, it is essential that Australian automotive producers focus substantial effort on the development of fuel efficient vehicles for production in Australia. — New Directions Statement, ALP, March 2007

Hybrid cars, which use both petrol and electric motors, have rapidly gained popularity due to their perceived environmental and running cost benefits. Three hybrids are available in Australia — Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and the Lexus 400h. Demand for these continues to outstrip supply. Toyota Australia is due to assemble 10,000 hybrid Camrys a year from 2010, supported by cash handouts from the Rudd government.

This makes sense in light of global research which has found that in 2008 fuel consumption is foremost in a car buyer’s mind and that 80% of consumers worldwide prefer to buy environmentally-friendly goods.

But the advantages of hybrids are questionable, to say the least. Fuel economy is better, but only under stop-start conditions and even then not dramatically better. On long trips, hybrids can consume more fuel than a modern diesel.

As well as having everything that can fail in a petrol car, hybrids have many electrical parts to go wrong as well. Factoring in the added complexity, the NRMA reports that the Prius is the most expensive car in its class to run. Yet demand continues to outstrip supply.

The good news is that while consumers are queuing up to buy hybrids, motor vehicle producers are embracing fully electric vehicles as the wave of the future.

Most of the major car companies are working furiously to develop all-electric cars. 33,000 Americans have registered their intent to buy a plug-in Chevy Volt when available in 2010.

Spokesman Dave Darovitz expects an initial shortage for the Volt. “I don’t know if there is any other vehicle or any other technology that has generated this kind of interest because of the state of the market and gas prices”.

Mitsubishi have skipped the hybrid step and gone straight to all-electric. They have announced that their fully-electric i MiEV will be on sale in Australia from 2010, priced in the $30,000 range.

Green car sceptics

Many myths surround battery powered cars. The most popular objection is that they are not really zero emission, they simply move the generation of greenhouse gasses from the exhaust pipe to the power station where the electricity used for recharging comes from. The flaw in that argument is that even using electricity from coal to charge the batteries, electric cars produce far less CO2 than any petrol or hybrid car. This is partly due to the greenhouse gas emission created by extracting the oil, shipping it from the other side of the world, refining it, and trucking it to the petrol station. Another factor is that electric cars can be charged at night time, when power stations have excess capacity.

Using renewable energy, which is now readily available, electric cars are truly zero emission. You can put solar panels on the roof of your house, or you can simply buy renewable energy from your electricity supplier.

Financially, the savings for the motorist of electric compared to petrol are dramatic. “Fuel” cost using off-peak electricity is typically one tenth. Even paying the premium for renewable energy, the running cost is a fraction of a hybrid or petrol car. And using your own solar power, fuel cost is really zero.

Another myth of green power is that more CO2 is put into the atmosphere making solar cells than you ever save form their solar electricity. This may have been true a decade ago, but solar technology has advanced to the point where the energy used in making solar cells is typically recovered after only 2 years of use, and solar cells have a life of twenty years or more.

Goodbye lead acid

Previous limitations of battery technology have given electric cars a bad image. Until recently, electric cars have been powered by ten or more lead-acid batteries, similar to the familiar “car battery” used to run the electricals of a petrol car. These are heavy, dirty, unreliable and usually died after 100-200 recharges. Dramatically better batteries are now available, based on sealed lithium batteries which are scaled-up versions of the batteries used in mobile phones and laptop computers. These provide enough power to drive about three times the distance possible with lead-acid batteries of the same weight, and can be recharged 2,000 time or more before needing replacement.

As a result, the public’s perception of the electric car is about to get a makeover, starting with the Tesla electric roadster which went on sale in August 2008. It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 4 seconds. You plug it at night, and the next day it can go 300 km on a charge. There’s no fuel tank, no exhaust pipe, no oil changes and very few moving parts to go wrong. Even at $US100,000 the first year’s production has been presold with 1,100 people having paid a $66,000 deposit.

Recognising the threat electric cars will present to hybrids, battery makers including U.S. frontrunner A123, are developing a battery upgrade for the Prius. More than 1,000 U.S. Prius owners are on a waiting list for this $10,000 plug-in conversion kit.

What’s in it for Australia?

Globally, the drive for fuel-efficient vehicles is a source of renewed optimism and continues to drive new investment in automotive industry.

Australia’s automotive industry is its largest export earner after mining, generating around $5bn in export earnings each year. The industry is moving to greener vehicles and the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries believes there are substantial opportunities for new technologies to be developed and applied in Australia.

The Rudd Government has made a strong commitment that Australia will play a leading role in development and application of green car technology. They have issued the Green Car Challenge, pledging to purchase environmentally-friendly vehicles for the Commonwealth fleet if they are produced in Australia:

Answering today’s challenges and seizing tomorrow’s opportunities will require new ideas and new policies. That’s why we’ve been talking about the need for a new partnership between government and the sector to attract new investment and to secure the jobs, the innovation, the technical skills which are driven by this critical industry. Our focus has been on green vehicle technologies and green production processes.

Innovation Minister Senator the Hon Kim Carr

The 2008 Review of Australia’s Automotive Industry recommended bringing forward the Green Car Innovation Fund to 2009 and doubling the grants to $1bn. It also proposed the inclusion of transportation in the new emissions trading scheme. This carrot-and-stick approach will be a huge boost to local green car initiatives.

The move to electric propulsion has fundamentally changed the game. The car industry of tomorrow will be more “Silicon Valley” than “Detroit”. Electrical and electronic excellence will be key to success. Innovation is now possible without needing the billion dollar engineering teams and facilities which Australia lacks.

It is significant that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk have invested in Tesla Motors. It is no accident that the company is based in Silicon Valley.

“Tesla Motors grew from a bunch of software and engineering experts who had no car design experience”, founder Martin Eberhard says.

“As a result, they weren’t held back by conventional wisdom.”

This is where Australian technology excels — we have high levels of innovation and expertise, particularly in solar energy, and we are notoriously unconstrained by convention.

While industry is ringing alarm bells about the potential cost of the proposed carbon reduction scheme, electric vehicles present an opportunity for Australia to revitalise its car industry, and develop a whole new green technology sector. The “green” opportunity is far greater than the threat.

Peter Vogel is a technologist who over 30 years has developed a number of Australian innovations including the Fairlight music synthesiser, Vitalcall medical alert, and IceTV personal digital video.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey