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The green car - déjà vu all over again?

By Tom Gosling - posted Friday, 4 July 2008

When Kevin Rudd dusted off his pre-election promise to provide $500 million for research and development of “green car” technology for Australia, he told Parliament that “any idea with a serious chance of reducing the carbon and other environmental impacts of Australia’s vehicle fleet will get a hearing”.

Well here’s a good idea, Mr Rudd - why not save everyone some time and money by having another look at the green car developed during the Howard era?

Yes, that’s right - John Howard’s government actually provided funding for a green car way back in the year 2000, when petrol was still less than a dollar a litre and climate change was not in the news every day.


Most Australians have forgotten, if they ever knew, two petrol-electric vehicles called the ECOmmodore and the aXcess, the first built by Holden and the second by a consortium of Australian components manufacturers using a little bit of government funding and some brilliant CSIRO technology.

Perhaps it was advice from some visiting General Motors executives that Detroit was going for hydrogen cars rather than hybrids, but for whatever reason the Howard government withdrew its support for the work, and both cars quickly became literally museum pieces - the ECOmmodore is now in the Powerhouse Museum, and the aXcess in the basement of the Victoria Museum in Melbourne.

The inspiration to build the cars came from CSIRO’s Australian Automotive Technology Centre, headed by a former Ford executive, David Lamb.

Lamb had the foresight to see that rising petrol prices and the emerging problem of carbon dioxide emissions issues would need the development of more economical and cleaner cars for the 21st century.

He got the backing of the then CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Malcolm Macintosh, to establish links with the automotive industry by developing “Australia’s own hybrids” - and within the amazingly short time of a year both vehicles had been developed.

Before it was dumped, the aXcess vehicle, a small-to-medium sized car, was promising to provide excellent performance on only one-third the fuel and carbon emissions of a conventional car.


The management team claimed it had measured the car at just under 5 litres per 100 kilometres in a simulated city cycle on a Melbourne test track - and with expected weight savings were confident they could get it down to 3.2 litres per 100 kilometres.

It was “frontier technology”, to use Mr Rudd’s term - brimming with new Australian engines, batteries, electric motors and computer systems which were up with, and even advanced on, the technologies being used in Toyota’s and Honda’s hybrid cars.

The aXcess vehicle was conceived as a “show pony” for Australian automotive components manufacturing and some 80 components manufacturers participated, contributing specially-designed components.

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About the Author

Tom Gosling is a freelance science journalist with an interest in population and environment. He started in Sydney as a general reporter for ABC News in the early 1970s, and was Editor of The University of Sydney News from 1974-84. He then worked with CSIRO’s national media office in Canberra before moving to Melbourne in 1989 to report on science for the Herald and Herald-Sun. In 1995 he returned to Canberra to edit Australian Innovation Magazine, In 2002 he joined He was formerly CMC Power Systems where he was a Director. It was one of the companies that contributed to the aXcess project.

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