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Making the switch

9 August 2009 3 Comments

A 2008 Reva electric car

A 2008 Reva electric car

Lauren Said-Moorhouse | Chief Editor

The electric car is known to be one of the best solutions to slowing down Climate Change. But just what is it and can it be regarded as the future of the auto-industry in Australia?

There are 15.3 million motor vehicles registered on Australian roads, according to the last motor vehicle census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in March 2008. With so many of them out there, it’s easy to understand why cars and their manufacturers have been regarded as environmental villains. And with the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December, environmental news has never been under stronger limelight. But how much do cars really contribute to national greenhouse gas emissions? And what exactly is being done to combat their environmentally hazardous image?

“If you actually look at the greenhouse gas emissions compiled by the Australian federal government, passenger cars count for between 7-8% of all greenhouse gas emissions,” says motoring expert Joshua Dowling.

As the producer of Top Gear Australia and former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s motoring section over the past 10 years, Mr Dowling has watched as car companies have become an allegory for environmental vandalism.

“Agriculture is three times, four times worse than cars. It is literally the gases coming out of the backside of the cows, and I don’t mean to be crude. But why is it that cars cop all the grief? I really think that it is because they are an easy target,” says Dowling.

Dowling’s comments come as the latest national greenhouse gas inventory reports, released this month show that in 2008, Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.1 percent to 553 million tonnes.

While the figures reported indicate that greenhouse gases increased particularly in the energy sector, transport emissions made up 14.6% of national emissions, a significant increase up from 26.9 percent in 2007 when compared with data from the inventory in 1990.

With an increase in emissions the question of what to do next becomes ever more pressing.

As one of his election promises in 2007, the Rudd government has commissioned a review by Professor Ross Garnaut. In his final report delivered on September 30, 2008, Garnaut recommended a target of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 2000 levels by 2020.

Later this year at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, environmental officials and ministers from all across the globe are expect to come together to reach a deal on climate change. However, Garnaut says that this should not affect Australia’s attempts to decrease its emissions. He says in his report that it ‘should pledge to cut by 5 per cent even if the international community only manages a partial deal.”

In addition to the Garnaut report, the Green Vehicles Guide, and initiative established by the government has introduced prospective buyers to the environmental ratings of all new vehicles.
This means that here in Australia, all cars have to be certified based on the vehicles’ gas emissions. Other considerations include air pollution, greenhouse discharge and manufacturer data.

While it might seem like the government is leading the charge against climate change, others would beg to differ.

“I think the government is following the industry as opposed to leading it… I’ve heard a couple of politicians make announcements in the last couple of months about electric cars and really all it amounts to is that they are keeping an eye on it and they are studying it,” says Dowling.

It appears that the catalysts of change are the carmakers themselves. For the second year running, at the 2009 Melbourne Motor Show, car manufacturers including Toyota, GM and Ford all focused on hybrid electric cars.

Hybrid cars are the merging of the traditional petrol engine and an electric engine. But as technology improves, the opportunity to design and produce a truly sustainable electric car becomes a real possibility.

Dowling says that this move from petrol to electricity has been going on for a while.

“The car companies have grown tired of being held to ransom by the instability of petrol prices because it takes five years to develop a car from a plain sheet of paper.”

“Imagine what the world was like five years ago trying to predict that petrol prices will have doubled in that time… they are trying to minimise their risk by having their bases covered… they just want to stay in business,” he added.

Hybrid cars are the latest it-item to be snapped up by Hollywood stars. Some of the biggest celebrity names including Tom Hanks, Cameron Diaz, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, all have an electric engine vehicle sitting in their garage.

In an open letter to The New Yorker in April, Tom Hanks wore his eco badge with pride as he explained his passion for electric hybrid cars.

“It had four doors, a rear hatch, room for my family, including a dog in the back, power windows, A/C, a great sound system, and the fastest, most effective windshield defroster known to mankind… My electric car recently crossed fifty thousand miles on the odometer with its original battery but without so much as a splash of gasoline,” wrote Hanks.

With our idols, or at least our favourite moviemakers, driving to a greener horizon, and environmental issues becoming more prominent in daily news cycles, it seems hybrid electric vehicles could be the next big thing.

Even if you don’t know anything about hybrid electric cars, you would at least know the name of the world’s most popular hybrid vehicle – the Toyota Prius.

Available for purchase in Australia for nearly ten years, the Prius has an electric motor that powers the car from rest and can reach up to 40 kph before the petrol engine kicks in. Because energy to run the car is from rest, it means that there is a lot less energy required to maintain speed thus making it more environmentally friendly, provided that the electricity comes from green power rather than coal fire
power stations.

Dowling adds, “What we’re going to see is the gradual electrification of the motor car. That is, the petrol engines are going to get smaller and the electric motors are going to get bigger as battery technology improves.”

“That’s why we’ve had hybrid cars as a stepping stone to electric vehicles. Hybrid cars have enabled us to learn a lot about electric motors… and what we’ve learnt from hybrid cars will certainly become very helpful for electric vehicles or electric only vehicles.”

Road testing around 250 cars a year, Dowling certainly knows what a car should feel like to drive and he says electric vehicles are no different to petrol engines.

“Absolutely amazing…the comment that I made was they are remarkable at just how unremarkable they are to drive. If I could buy one today, I would have one today. They are so normal to drive, it’s not funny. In fact, the perceptions that they are slow are actually very wrong.”

“I recently tested the Tesla Roadster. They are all amazing. I mean the tesla is faster than a porshe and can go without petrol for 250km,” adds Dowling.

But he is keen to highlight some problems with electric vehicles.

“The only issue and it is a serious one, is that they are silent. And pedestrians don’t hear them and don’t sense them at car park speeds… I got a lot of laughs when I mentioned this at a speech recently but car companies are already working on external speakers.”

The other problem that he points out is the lack of infrastructure, such as recharge points, to support the advances in electric vehicle technology. With only 85% of Australian’s having access to undercover parking, garages and driveways, where do the other 15% recharge?

“Someone needs to invent a recharge post for people who live, for example, in the inner west of Sydney, where there is a lot of on street parking… they will probably be the early adopters of an electric vehicle… but what is to stop vandalism of the post or unplugging of the cord. So you wake up the next morning and the car’s not charged,” said Dowling.

But there is still hope with research teams all over the country working on sustainable energy transport options. One group working on advancing electric vehicles and their sustainable energy is the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF). Working in conjunction with engineering researchers from the University of Technology Sydney, Australia’s first vehicle-to-grid electric car was launched by NSW Deputy Premier and minister for the environment and climate change, Carmel Tebbutt last month.

The vehicle, a modified Toyota Prius nicknamed SWITCH, can be recharged from a normal power point and feed back electricity into the power grid.

ISF project director Chris Dunstan said “The extra batteries can store energy at off-peak times and feed power back into the grid at times of peak demand. On a large scale, this could level out peaks in power demand and thereby avoid the need to build expensive but seldom used power stations and network infrastructure.”

“While the vehicle is only at the trial stage, it is possible that new smart grid technology could control a whole fleet of cars so that they charge or supply energy at different times.”

Ms Tebbutt added, “SWITCH provides us with a glimpse of what a cleaner, greener future may look like in NSW.”

But while this project sounds exciting, Dowling is quick to put it into context.

“That is a valid thing and its great they are doing it because it will help them understand it [electric technology]. But at the end of the day they should be focusing on the infrastructure and less on the technology of the cars. But I understand that they had to build the prototype because that helps them understand the challenges for infrastructure.”

Dowling is also somewhat weary of government announcements relating to electric technology. Earlier this year Mitsubishi toured the country with their latest hybrid vehicle, the i-MiEV city car, demonstrating it to each state government and potential buyers.

According to Dowling, “Carmel Tebbutt issued a press release the day she test drove that car saying the state government was conducting a study of the vehicle.”

However, when Dowling contacted Mitsubishi, they were unaware of such a trial.

“It wasn’t as if the person didn’t know, the person I asked at Mitsubishi was the managing director and he said, ‘well they haven’t spoken to us about it,’ and that was within 60 seconds of her making the announcement.”

“I’m a bit disappointed that she has undone a lot of the good work of actually turning up and listening and learning about the technology but then to go and say she is part of a trial when a) none exists yet and b) she certainly hasn’t shared that with Mitsubishi and Mitsubishi haven’t offered it at that stage. So clearly the governments are excited about being seen to be doing the right things but they actually need to do the right things,” said Dowling.

Currently no electric only cars are available in Australia but that is soon set to change with the new releases by top car manufacturers in the coming years.

However, many Australians are becoming so sceptical and tired of the promises of electric cars that they have taken it upon themselves to convert their own cars.

One such person is Peter Campbell. Last year, he said he grew so impatient at the carmakers and that he decided to do some research into the conversion process.
Two weeks ago, he registered his converted Daihatsu charade for use on the roads in Canberra.

“I have always wanted to get the most fuel efficient and least environmentally damaging car available… and was rather disappointed to find that fuel economy has barely changed in over a half a century,” he says.

Campbell started doing research in to alternative energy supplies and quickly came to the decision that “electric vehicles were really the only option that could use alternative energy supplies immediately and be a dramatic improvement rather than a small incremental improvement.”

Using his newly converted car as a family vehicle for ‘around town’, Campbell says that his car is certainly capable of keeping up with the traffic around Canberra and sees no reason why manufacturers couldn’t do the same.

“It is a specialised around town car and so far it looks like its range is working out around sort of 70-75 km and the longest trip which I’ve done so far was 53 km which was to the other side of town and back again,” says Campbell.

“There might be a certain amount of scepticism because people might imagine whether we’re ever going to see commercial electric cars around. And for that I have some sympathy. One of the reasons for going ahead and building one myself is because we’ve been told for some time by all sorts of manufacturers, ‘oh yes, we’re going to bring out an electric car,’ and they haven’t materialised,” he adds.

Dowling also refers to this public scepticism saying, “I believe it’s very healthy to be cynical. It’s very healthy to consider all options… but if carmakers could find a way to save fuel, they’d do it tomorrow. They’ve spent literally billions of dollars.”

With so much energy being put into researching and developing sustainable energy options like electricity, it seems the future of the car industry in Australia will be partly played by electric vehicles.

Campbell says, “I think it is the way things are going… there will be a small, efficient as possible, purely battery electric car that gets used to drive around town.”

Dowling too, says that he always comes back to electricity.

“If you make it from renewable sources, its unlimited… So the car can live on forever,” he says.

“Electric cars are important and they will become a part of our future but they are not the only solution.”

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