The search for alternative ways to fuel vehicles really is in full swing now but it appears that Australia is slow in getting in on the act even though $500 million has been set aside for this in the 2008 budget. Even more surprising is that there has been a sustained effort in Australia by at least one company to promote electric transport for the last 39 years. Several prototypes have been produced, tested and found to provide satisfactory service even with existing conventional lead batteries. However, complacency and counteraction by vested interests blocked mass production.
In the Australian eMagazine Green Motoring (PDF 2.31MB) we can now read about hybrid cars in Japan and hydro-powered cars in the US and Sweden, but both have disadvantages. Solar powered cars, several of which have been trialed in competitions in Australia, are still far from being sufficiently advanced for commercial purposes and practical use.
This situation favours the all-electric car, particularly if more efficient and lighter batteries can be mass-produced. Battery farms and wall plugs should also be provided in public places. These are not insurmountable problems at all. What is required is the political will to back such a major technological as well as cultural transformation. Fast public decision-making and leading by example are the prerequisites for success.
Sure, the batteries may not be entirely pollution free and more electricity would have to be produced, naturally by sustainable means. Such a massive fuel revolution will require government intervention and leadership on a grand scale. The North Sydney Council has announced one shining example just a few days ago. It is "on-track" to be the first in Australia to install plug-in stations, to meet the expected uptake of hybrid cars (North Shore Times, June 20, 2008)
Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to hear guest speaker Roy Leembruggen at a meeting of Dutch community groups. Veteran Leembruggen, a third generation Dutch migrant, was in the news recently as the engineer who designed Sydney's revolutionary first double deck trains (1962).
He has questioned the newly proposed single deck Metro Line to Western Sydney. While the first part of the talk was about the great advantages of double deck trains, the second part was even more interesting and surprising. It sketched the development of no less than 26 types of electric cars, buses and trolley buses, by his company Elroy here in Sydney, and revealed the massive environmental, economic and mechanical advantages of such transport.
Apart from the buses he also provided graphic design evidence of various types of Townobile, a collective name for various forms of stylish city transport, which would leave all petrol driven vehicles for dead in view of the rapidly increasingly petrol prices. Although already improved conventional lead batteries provided satisfactory performance if superior types replace these the future of electric transport seems beyond question. The issue of the conventional batteries has been used by vested interests to throw up barriers in the past.
On several occasions, both in Australia and in California, commercial deals were very close and yet countervailing forces as well as habit blocked the road to widespread acceptance and commercial implementation. By the mid-1990s the Leroy prototypes were retired from use but improvements continued to be made on design.
There certainly exists a wealth of advanced research, design competence and experience with electric vehicles in Australia that can be reengaged at short notice. In its 2001 brochure the Elroy company presents an astonishing series of cars, buses (with no steps), vans and trolleys. The brochure also explains the aesthetic Elroy Townohead Overhead conductor system which would attractively integrate with other road furniture, it is claimed, at just 1 per cent of the per km cost of heavy or light rail.
The company is now ready for presenting to the market what it calls its fifth generation models, with a further 10 years' experience incorporated. Improvements are partly the result of research into foreign efforts in the same direction. Leembruggen rightly stresses the advantages of Australia being able to commence a “sunrise” industry, which avoids the enormous costs of retooling huge existing petrol car industries.
Recent reports from Japan, the US and also France, suggest the battery problem is being overcome. Toyota and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (makers of Panasonic) are now building a nickel-metal hydride battery plant in Shizuoka prefecture, central Japan. Toyota is also building a lithium-ion battery plant for future electric cars. Lithium-ion batteries are smaller and more powerful than nickel-metal hydrides, and they may be used in the plug-in Prius expected in 2010. Nissan, who plans to release an affordable electric vehicle in 2012, will be using lithium-ion batteries.
In Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe announced a scheme where 4,000 electric cars would be placed around Paris and its outskirts for drivers to use on short journeys. This is the first electric car project of its kind in a capital city (Sydney Morning Herald, June 21, 2008).