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Reinventing The Wheel

Updated on Sep 19, 2008 – SCMP

The revolution towards an environmentally friendly automotive industry has left the back roads and taken to the streets. General Motors’ unveiling this week of the production version of its electric and petrol-powered Chevrolet Volt marks that point. But this does not mean that the era of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles is over. Government will and presence is now necessary to ensure that clean-car technology takes hold and predominates.

We have, after all, been at this point before. As innovative as electric and hybrid cars may seem, they were around when the industry was in its infancy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s decision, in 1908, to opt for petrol to fuel his mass-produced Model T (it could even run on biofuels) steered the course. Ford was swayed by an oil-discovery boom that saw the advent of a cheap, easily-available fuel. His assembly lines produced affordable vehicles that, within a decade, had driven out the more expensive steam and battery-powered competition.

New technologies have been flirted with and abandoned, nuclear and solar among them. US carmaker Baker Motor Vehicle Company produced thousands of electric cars between 1899 and 1915, despite their low speeds. Engineer Ferdinand Porsche created the first battery-and-petrol hybrid in 1901 with his Mixte, which was too expensive to produce commercially because it needed 2 tonnes of batteries to operate the engines on each of its wheels. Battery technology breakthroughs allowed Toyota to take up the hybrid baton again with its Prius in Japan, in 1997.

As pioneering as the Prius has been, the fact that it switches to petrol when speeds of about 25km/h are reached make it rife for a successor. The Volt reverses that, with petrol only used when its batteries run low. There are still difficulties with development, though, and whether the anticipated launch date of late 2010 can be met remains to be seen. But, with the realisation that, for the sake of the environment, vehicles need to be non-polluting and that fossil fuels will one day run out, it is clear that hybrids are only a bridging technology. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is at the forefront of this thinking, indicating that it wants all-electric cars to be ready for mass production by 2010.

Automotive consultants and historians I contacted were in no doubt that electricity was the future fuel. But, for all the innovations and apparent direction of the industry, we should heed the past. University of Dayton science and technology historian John Heitmann pointed out that the industry is at the same crossroads it found itself in the late 1960s.

Then, innovations saw the creation of electric-powered prototypes like Ford’s Commuta. The three-wheeled car unveiled in 1967 – two generations ahead of GM’s move this week – was capable of speeds of 40km/h, with a range of 60km between charges. Unlike the Volt, it was completely non-polluting.

Dr Heitmann laments that the car industry dragged its heels on the innovation, determining that shaking up its manufacturing and way of thinking was not in its interests. Had the developments been built upon, there is no telling where the world would be today. Without doubt, though, there would be far less dependency on Middle East oil, and urban pollution levels would be considerably lower. In consequence, the past decade has been spent reinventing the wheel.

Americans have the world’s biggest auto market and love big vehicles – but not high petrol prices. The cost of oil has dropped by about a third from its June high and the US$4 per gallon threshold that turned the US market to smaller cars and hybrids is being forgotten. GM says it is committed to the Volt, but there are few parts of the US where the infrastructure for electric cars is in place.

Oil is a finite resource, no matter what the price. Fossil-fuel-burning vehicles are the biggest source of urban pollution. Circumstances have driven carmakers to where we have been before but, this time, there can be no turning back. Governments have to ensure, through incentives for innovators and consumers, and penalties for polluters, that the progress continues.

Peter Kammerer is the Post’s foreign editor.

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