BURNS

Gen­eral Mo­tors fu­tur­ist Larry Burns sees gas and so­lar en­ergy driv­ing Aus­tralia, writes PAUL GOVER

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Special Report -

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 FU­TURE

‘‘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.’’

THE 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’?’’

THE CHOICES

‘‘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.’’

HY­DRO­GEN FUEL

‘‘THERE’S enough hy­dro­gen be­ing pro­duced to fuel more than 200 mil­lion fuel-cell ve­hi­cles. That’s al­most a

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