Thursday, 17 April 2008
The recent passing of John Button made me reflect on his extraordinary contribution to motor vehicle production in Australia and consider the future of this vital industry.
The diminutive Button exerted a positive influence on this industry to an extent way out of proportion to his physical size, and positively influenced the lives of many Australians. He dragged motor manufacturing kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and is largely responsible for its relative health today.
Maybe it’s time we found another Moses to lead the industry into the future, particularly as it bears on the market for large vehicles.
Australians have traditionally been very fond of large six cylinder cars, and the latest versions of these vehicles are able to hold their own on world markets as demonstrated by the export success of (for example) the Holden Commodore.
The threat to continued success in this market is posed by the fuel consumption of these vehicles, and is the principal reason for their declining sales locally. I believe there is a marketing opportunity open to both Ford Australia and GMH presented by this threat, and the availability of LPG as an alternative fuel. This is reinforced by my own experience.
Like many Australians, I do heaps of long distance driving, and find these large and robust vehicles eminently suitable for the task. The quality of accessories such as radios, air-conditioning systems, and headlights reflect the demands of our hostile environment, and are usually more suitable to our conditions than imports. I feel qualified to judge, because I’ve driven just about every make and model in the corporate fleet in the last five years, over distances as much as 3000km per week.
My own car is an LPG equipped Falcon. The conversion is a state-of-the-art sequential vapour injection system. It has proved totally reliable, completely refined (no whiff of gas odour), and performs as well, and in some circumstances better than, the unleaded version. Note that this conversion is not the antiquated system that Ford insists on fitting to its E-Gas factory vehicles. I average 13.2 lit/100km on a mix of urban and country driving, and this costs the equivalent of driving a vehicle returning 6.6lit/100km given the difference in price between the two fuels. Because I have a toroidal (doughnut shaped) tank fitted, the folding rear seat feature is preserved. I do lose a little boot space because of the displacement of the spare, but often travel without it, using a pressure pack puncture kit. Another bonus is a range on combined fuels of about 1000km, and the flexibility this allows.
My suggestion is this – Local manufacturers should spend development money on SVI systems, and build a vehicle from the ground up around such a system. It could be marketed to cash in on the public demand for green vehicles, and would use a fuel resource that is locally produced and readily available. In 2006 Australia produced approximately 3.1 million tonnes of LPG. In the same year Australia consumed 1.9 million tonnes. Some 80% (2.5 million tonnes) of LPG production is 'naturally occurring' and is sourced directly from underground reserves associated with crude oil and natural gas production. 20% of indigenous LPG production (600,000 tonnes) is extracted from crude oil refining at the seven refineries located near Australia's major capital cities. 60% of LPG consumed is used in automotive applications across 550,000 cars and light commercial vehicles.
Australia currently exports approximately 1.5 million tonnes of LPG but also imports around 300,000 tonnes of LPG (propane) to the large East Coast market.
Surely it would be better to use this fuel (which is cleaner) than continuing to be ripped off by the oil companies. A little imaginative marketing would make all the difference. The local manufacturers have the available technology.
It’s ironic that diesel has just begun to catch on at the same time that its price is skyrocketing. A cynic would suggest a connection.
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