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Oil shock need not affect Australia, says GM

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By JAMES STANFORD 12 August 2008

GENERAL Motors' most senior global planner has outlined his vision for the Australian automotive landscape, in which our dependence on imported oil would end.

GM research and development and strategic planning vice-president Larry Burns, who met with federal industry minister Kim Carr and Victorian premier John Brumby yesterday to discuss future technologies for Holden, said Australia was in a prime position to become a self-sufficient energy producer and cut its emissions at the same time.

He said Australia’s viable future automotive energy sources could include LPG, CNG, biomass-generated ethanol, hydrogen, coal (which can be converted into liquid fuel) and electricity sourced from clean-coal processes or renewable resources.

Mr Burns said Australia could tap its plentiful supply of natural resources to move away from imported oil and therefore control its own destiny.

“I am quite envious of Australia because you are one of the nations that truly can have an energy independence strategy and you can find a way to reduce the automobile’s dependence on petroleum.

“When I did my background research for my trip to Australia I was fascinated to see how much coal you have – there certainly are pathways where coal can find its way to automobiles, whether it is through electrically-driven vehicles or creating hydrogen or coal to liquid,” he said.

“I was intrigued to see how much sunshine you have – solar continues to look promising longer term – I was intrigued as to how much natural gas you have and the potential for LPG and CNG vehicles, and I am intrigued by the biomass that could exist, both in municipal waste and plants that we don’t need (which could be used to produce ethanol).”

In the short-term, Mr Burns said Holden, along with GM, was looking at raft of technologies to improve the efficiency of the Commodore’s V6 engine - including direct-injection, turbocharging and the cylinder de-activation feature soon to be introduced on V8 models.

But he warned that rising demand for oil and supply issues would also require Holden looked at other energy sources.

“Efficiency alone is not enough to solve this problem,” he said.

Mr Burns did not single out one alternative energy source as the silver bullet, instead suggesting that a range of alternatives covering all customer needs was required.

When asked what he would do if he had a magic wand and could direct Australia’s automotive energy policy, Mr Burns said: “If I did have that magic wand in Australia I would definitely focus on energy diversity.

“I would ask myself, do I need to be importing any petroleum at all into this country? Why would I not want to import a lot of petroleum? Well, you have a lot of dollars that flow out of your country because of importing petroleum. Why wouldn’t you want to control your own destiny as an economy with energy?” he said.

“So then I would ask how do I get off petroleum imports? I would look at LPG as a starting point, which is a very exciting opportunity that you have here already with the sales and distribution, and natural gas which is inexpensive, and I would anticipate compressed natural gas down the road and longer term.

“I would really go after solar as a longer-term bet. I do think it is going to be economically viable and then I would look at biomass (for ethanol). I am talking about municipal waste – you have large cities, they are producing a lot of municipal waste and a lot of that goes to landfill now.”

Mr Burns (left) sees the adoption of some of these technologies as central to enabling Australians to continue buying large cars like the Commodore.

“Holden is a brand that is built around family-sized vehicles and my experience in the business shows me that is always going to be a nice market for family-sized vehicles,” he said.

“So we need to find a way to provide energy to those vehicles so that they can be both energy and environmentally sustainable.”

GM is working on a number of alternative energy projects and is currently rolling out E85 ethanol-capable cars, mild petrol-electric hybrids and diesels, and higher-performance dual-mode petrol hybrids.

However, Mr Burns singled out future plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells as “critically important”.

“Both fuel cell technology and extended-range electric vehicle are critically important - they serve two different purposes in our energy diversity strategy,” he said, adding that electric vehicles would be perfect for shorter trips in cities while fuel cells would be capable of powering full-size vehicles for much greater distances.

GM’s first and most prominent plug-in electric vehicle is the Chevrolet Volt small-car, which is due for introduction in the US in 2010. It uses a large lithium-ion battery pack supported by a range-extending 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.

Mr Burns was talking up the Volt, but warned it would not suit everyone.

“While we are excited about the battery for the Volt, quite frankly it is hard to imagine full-size family vehicles plugging in and giving you sufficient range,” he said, explaining that the battery is the size of an American football offensive lineman (about 6ft4in).

“You plug it in and it might only go 40 miles. That same vehicle can go 40 miles on a single gallon of gasoline. So, while lithium-ion technology is very exciting, think about a gallon of milk compared to the size of the offensive lineman and you begin to appreciate just how effective gasoline is as an energy carrier and the remaining challenge for batteries as an energy carrier.”

Nevertheless, he emphasised that the Volt would be sufficient for many customers.

“What’s beautiful about that is that most people travel less than 40 miles in a day, so that is enough energy to handle our daily driving.”

While Bob Lutz told GoAuto in March that the Volt would definitely come to Australia soon after its US launch, Mr Burns would not confirm a timetable. Instead, he said GM was keeping its mind open about the possibility of global exports, including Australia.

“Our immediate focus is to get this car developed and get it in the market in the United States. We aren’t getting preoccupied with other possibilities,” he said.

As for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, Mr Burns believes any large-scale introduction would not occur for another 10 years.

He said the development of an adequate hydrogen infrastructure would be central to the successful introduction of fuel cells and added that not enough was being done by energy companies.

“We really need to see stronger indications from energy companies regarding the infrastructure,” he said. “We don’t want to go out there and commit to a high-volume product with fuel cells and not have an infrastructure.”

Mr Burns said it would not be as expensive as some critics have argued.

“We have studied the infrastructure very carefully and we don’t think there is any reason it can’t be done very cost effectively.”

The GM R&D chief said there would be definite advantages of a fuel cell vehicle over a Volt-style electric system.

“While hydrogen doesn’t have the energy density of gasoline it is an order of magnitude better than a battery,” he said.

“To refuel a fuel cell takes four to six minutes rather than plugging in an electric for four to six hours and we have proven that you can go 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen (in a large SUV).”

Mr Burns talked-up LPG as a short-term alternative and said that CNG could also be used to power cars.

“You could use compressed natural gas at home from your garage. You take this idea of a Chevrolet Volt where you go home and you plug in for 40 miles (range), well what if you went home and you filled your CNG tank for 50 miles of driving the next day?

“So those days you go less than 50 miles you can run on CNG and for those days you need to take a longer trip maybe you have a bi-fuel vehicle that runs on CNG and LPG (which has greater range).

“That gives the customer the choice.”

Mr Burns said the development of ethanol generated from bio-mass, rather than from feedstock-based materials, could give the ethanol industry a big boost in Australia. He said the system was around three to five years away from commercial introduction in the US.

GM has led the US industry’s push for ethanol adoption and has invested in companies developing methods to produce ethanol from waste products.

When asked if the automotive industry could be criticised for being reactive rather than proactive with regards to green technology in general, Mr Burns agreed.

“I hate to criticise my own industry, but yes I think that is a fair observation. It is an industry that finds itself 97 per cent dependent on petroleum and I don’t think that is a robust business strategy,” he said. “There is a huge co-dependence between automobiles and energy.

“We have to change. There is no question that the path the industry has been on for the last 100 years is not a sustainable pathway. The good news is that there are a lot of good choices out there.”

Link: http://www.goauto.com.au/mellor/mellor.nsf...A2574A3002973F3

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