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EVs not a ‘silver bullet’ for sustainability

Combustion development: Holden’s spark-ignition direct-injection (SIDI) V6 in local production.

SAE-A calls for more tech in local engines and holistic approach to electrification

18 Jul 2011

THE president of the Society of Automotive Engineers - Australasia, Patrick Ross, has questioned whether electric vehicles are a “silver bullet” and the best way forward for the Australian car industry given their reliance on electricity generated from coal-fired power stations.

Speaking to GoAuto from Germany last week, Mr Ross warned against the industry becoming preoccupied with EVs at the expense of a “holistic” view of sustainability, in which aspects beyond vehicle design, materials and manufacturing – such as where the electricity comes from and how the car is serviced, maintained, repaired and, ultimately, disposed – are equally important.

Mr Ross, who is the regional president for automotive electronics and vice-president of manufacturing co-ordination at Robert Bosch (Australia), also urged local car-makers to follow overseas trends – and meet consumer expectations – with new fuel-saving technologies such as automatic idle-stop and micro-hybrid systems for their Australian-built internal combustion engines.

Furthermore, he called on the federal government to facilitate and promote Australia as a global centre of excellence in automotive engineering in a similar way that India has become the “new Silicon Valley”.

At the core of the SAE’s position on the current state of the local car industry, which was outlined at a ‘Change by Design’ conference held as part of this month’s Australian Automotive Week, is that it “can only be sustained by radical and revolutionary changes to our products and services”.

“As long as you need to rely on the internal combustion engine for a period of time, you need to continue to work on it to make it significantly more efficient and less polluting,” Mr Ross told GoAuto.

80 center imageLeft: President of the Society of Automotive Engineers - Australasia, Patrick Ross. Below: Ford I6 engine production in Australia, Toyota engine production, EV Engineering chairman Rob McEniry (left) and federal industry minister Kim Carr at EV Engineering launch with a Holden Commodore.

“Having said that, we also advocate strongly that, since we all know that fossil fuels are coming to an end, and in order to be environmentally sustainable, we need to look at other ways of powering vehicles.

“Obviously the electric vehicle issue is very much on the table. What we’re talking about is ... it’s great to look at these electric engines, but what we need to do is consider the whole ‘power chain’.

“In other words, how do you generate that electricity? If you are going to have electric vehicles but the electricity to power them is powered by coal-powered generators, is that ultimately the best way forward? “From a ‘whole of the planet’ perspective, is this really a win-win? Are we moving forward? “What we’re talking about in terms of ‘revolution’ is a revolution in thinking. We’re trying to challenge the industry that, instead of simply saying electric vehicles are the silver bullet or the solution to everything – and everybody keeps preaching ‘you must have electric vehicles’ and if you say you don’t like EVs you’re a heretic – what we’re saying rather is that, yes, that’s clearly part of the future but let’s start really talking about the whole ‘power chain’, the whole system.” Mr Ross said the SAE was concerned about the “hype” surrounding EVs as holding the key to the car industry’s future.

“The concern we had was, whenever there was a seminar on electric and green, it was full of hype telling everybody you must have electric cars. And if you didn’t have an electric fleet car trial, or you weren’t convinced that the electric car was the way to go, then obviously you’re a heretic,” he said.

Asked how realistic is was for Australian car-makers to adopt new hi-tech powertrain technologies – and to move to electrification – given the current cost pressures in local manufacturing, Mr Ross said there were opportunities for short-term improvements while the industry considered its longer-term future.

“If the future is more electrified, we need to carefully plan this evolution. The question is, while we may be strongly debating whether we can have electric cars made in Australia or not, in the meantime we see some opportunities for local-engineered vehicles to make better use of the internal combustion engine,” he said.

Mr Ross specifically identified engine idle-stop, hybrid technology and similar systems as “things that could be more realistic for them within their vehicle platforms and vehicle technologies in the short-term”.

“Again, it’s a question of a little bit of hype – everybody jumping to the bandwagon ‘If the future is electric cars, then we’re not going to be able to make them in Australia’. Maybe that’s the case. But if we go two steps back and look now at what the large car-makers are doing (globally) ... the focus is primarily on making the best use of the internal combustion engine.

“Start-stop is now commonplace (in Europe). Brake energy regeneration is becoming fairly commonplace. There are various levels of hybrid being considered. These things are possible in the car industry around the world using current vehicle platforms and current internal combustion platforms.

“So there is a hell of a lot of time over the next seven to 10 years of that evolution process before we come to a vehicle fleet of every manufacturer where more than 50 per cent are purely electric.” Notwithstanding developments such as Holden’s spark-ignition direct-injection (SIDI) V6 and Toyota’s move to a new-generation AR-series four-cylinder engine for the next Camry (including an Atkinson-cycle variant for Camry Hybrid), Mr Ross said the SAE was concerned about the future of Australia’s automotive engine manufacturing industry if there was no “significant evolution” of internal combustion engines built here.

He urged the local industry to “focus your energy on getting the best possible environmental sustainability that you can get today with existing, known technology rather than (get caught) in this debate as if we in Australia should have 100 per cent electric vehicles in the next five years”.

“With the local manufacturers, all we can see is that all of these three companies have access to the necessary technologies. There is no question about it,” he said. “The question is: is there enough pull from the consumer?” Mr Ross acknowledged that a move to a more efficient powertrain developed overseas could threaten the local industry if a car-maker determined it was not viable to build it here, which could be the case with Ford’s new global EcoBoost V6 replacing the long-running local inline-six.

“But I believe that if there is an overall pull from the consumer, from the public (and) from the media, the government also is then able to act and support accordingly.

“At the moment, because of all these difficulties and challenges, if there is not a strong enough pull, it is a lot easier to do nothing or not much at all.

“Our point is that we’ve got to revolutionise the debate and thinking to bring more issues on the table now, rather than having a debate in blue-sky thinking.” In order to strengthen the automotive engineering sector and to stop the flow of engineers to other countries, Mr Ross called on the federal government to establish Australia as a global centre of excellence for the field.

“We believe there is a very clear possibility that Australia could establish an automotive engineering business park where global manufacturers could simply come and establish engineering hubs to get the best possible engineers from Australia.

“What tends to happen is a lot of those engineers would go overseas and be contracted to these same organisations over there.

“But let’s take, for example, Chinese manufacturers. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could establish an engineering centre in Australia where they could employ the same Australian engineers for less money – because they don’t have to relocate them to China – but also from an IP security point of view, they would be much more secure doing their advanced engineering and research in Australia than in China.” Mr Ross said this was not “rocket science revolution”, citing the example of the software industry using India to create “basically a new Silicon Valley all around Bangalore”.

He also highlighted that Australia was one of the few countries that can, and have, developed cars “from a clean sheet of paper to a finished manufactured product”.

“However, there needs to be an incentive for manufacturers and other automotive organisations to come here and establish centres of excellence,” he said, emphasising that it had to be more than simply subsidies along the lines of the federal government’s now-defunct Green Car Innovation Fund.

“It’s got to be more than just a fund that is available. It’s got to be more where the government says, ‘Here is a concept or strategy that we want to establish’ – for example, ‘here’s the location’ – and they go out and sell it to the global industry.” Mr Ross would not talk in detail on specific issues relating to Bosch – which earlier this year announced it was relocating three-quarters of its Australian automotive manufacturing operations offshore – but did say that no further cutbacks were planned.

He also said the entire industry, including Bosch, was coming to grips with the “real impact” of the federal government’s carbon tax scheme.

“One thing is clear: in a difficult business environment, for all organisations, whenever you put additional taxes etcetera, it does make things more difficult. But whether it makes it critical or not – frankly speaking, a) I can’t comment, and b) it’s probably too early to tell anyway.”

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