General Motors futurist Larry Burns sees gas and solar energy driving Australia, writes PAUL GOVER
TALK time with Larry Burns is special. He is more than just another imported suit from General Motors’ headquarters in Detroit with a big title and an even bigger pay packet.
Burns is a genuine futurist, and one with the rare and priceless ability to drill deeply into the problems facing the automotive world without leaving a non-expert listener either sleeping or trailing a week behind. He knows his stuff and he knows how to communicate the important messages and answer the tough questions.
His title is vice-president of research and development and strategic planning, which means he is the man leading the switch from petroleum power to a world of fuel-cell electric cars that run on hydrogen. He talks big about the GM Volt and the cars that will come after it, but also touts improvements to GM Holden’s homegrown Commodore.
Burns has a dry sense of humour, a feel for the big issues, and more than enough experience to pull the whole story together.
Best of all, for you and me, he has access to the decision makers at the world’s biggest car company and he is pushing hard to get the right moves at the right time.
Burns sat down for an hour last week to answer questions, and nothing was too big or too much trouble.
‘‘THE auto industry is in a transformational period. Fuel, globalisation. . .
‘‘We need to get out in front of that better, as an industry, and we think the key is to focus on efficiency and energy diversity. Efficiency’s important because energy supply looks like it’s going to run short of energy demand and we think that the supply of petroleum is plateauing.
‘‘But then efficiency alone won’t solve this challenge.’’
‘‘LET’S say you went to bed and had 900 million vehicles in the world . . . all have their efficiency improved 25 per cent — that’d be a miracle.
‘‘Now you pick your technology: they were all hybridised, they were all converted to diesels, HCCI.
‘‘So you have 25 per cent improvement. How much time have you bought yourself? If you believe the global economy is going to grow at 3 or 4 per cent per year, that’s a pretty good bet. Energy demand correlates with that at 2 or 3 per cent.
‘‘So, 10 years from now after that miracle last night, we’ll start consuming more petroleum than we did when we had this miracle happen.’’
THE PETROL PRICE CRISIS
‘‘I’D LIKE to believe some markets have always had higher fuel prices, so I don’t think they necessarily need a wake-up call. I was in Germany about a month ago and diesel fuel was the equivalent of $8.25 a gallon.
‘‘So the wake-up call really is where gasoline is relatively inexpensive, like the US. And it is not just a call for auto companies, but for consumers as well as political leaders.
‘‘Gasoline became very, very inex- pensive over an extended period of time and that defined the consumer choice, and the consumer choice tended to be for more power and more size in the vehicle.
‘‘I get very concerned about, ‘What if petroleum dropped back under $20 a barrel’?’’
‘‘YOU have all these people digging their heels in, thinking there is a simple answer and that’s the only thing you should invest in. In fact, you have to invest in all of it.
‘‘Then we get paralysed by that indecisiveness, on people thinking it’s one answer. So this is a matter of collective will.
‘‘We can solve it, but we can’t solve it by being paralysed by all these parochial different views, and what’s happening is people who like natural gas over gasoline promote that and criticise all the others. People who like ethanol overly promote that and criticise all the others . . .’’
POTENTIAL IN AUSTRALIA
‘‘I WAS fascinated to see how much coal you have and certainly pathways where coal could find its way to automobiles, whether it’s through electrically driven vehicles or creating hydrogen or coal liquid.
‘‘I was intrigued by how much sunshine you have and solar energy continues to look promising.
‘‘I’m intrigued by how much natural gas you have and the potential for LPG and CNG vehicles and I’m intrigued by the amount of biomass that could exist, in the form of municipal waste and plants.
‘‘And so you can find a way to reduce the automobile’s dependence on petroleum by finding pathways for this energy to get to the automobile.’’
‘‘THERE’S enough hydrogen being produced to fuel more than 200 million fuel-cell vehicles. That’s almost a