Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It’s Time to Gazump Fuel Guzzlers

By Ian Lowe

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in setting fuel efficiency targets for new cars.

A recent one-day meeting in Melbourne brought together international experts on vehicle fuel economy. The Global Fuel Economy Initiative aims to improve car efficiency. The argument is that the two pressures of climate change and “peak oil” demand reductions in fuel use.

Australia lags well behind Northern Hemisphere countries. The European Union has set demanding standards for future vehicles, and even the USA now has legislated targets that require their inefficient cars to be cleaned up. By local standards, they look serious goals: 30.4 miles per US gallon in 2011, rising to 37.8 by 2016. Those translate to 7.8 L/100 km this year, dropping to 6.3 L/100 km by 2016.

The current average of the Australian vehicle fleet is about 12 L/100 km, with gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives using up to 18 L/100 km. The EU has set a 2015 target of a 19% improvement on 2008 levels, which were already much better than the performance in Australia. The Commonwealth government has announced it will set better fuel standards for 2015, giving the industry a few years to clean up its act.

While one speaker lamented the widespread scepticism at the meeting about industry’s commitment to efficiency improvement, others argued that every attempt to set targets had been opposed by the industry. Because local car manufacturers mainly produce relatively large and inefficient cars, a move to smaller vehicles means a shift to imports, with consequent local job losses.

The issue is that new car purchases in Australia are dominated by fleet sales for governments and corporations. Henry O’Clery is executive director of Future Climate Australia, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, and director of the Low Emission Vehicles partnership. He told the Melbourne meeting that the biggest overall seller among new cars is the Holden Commodore, but the biggest private market seller is the Mazda 3. “That tells you a lot about the way fleet purchases drive the market,” he said.

There was a broad agreement at the meeting that we don’t need to repeat work done in the Northern Hemisphere, just adapt it to local conditions. Several voices called for a bipartisan approach at the political level so that the goalposts don’t shift with a change of government.

The policy debate centres around the way the standards are set. One approach is to apply a uniform target, say of 8 L/100 km. The EU has a sliding scale based on weight, while the US targets are based on the vehicle’s physical size. Critics say these encourage larger cars by giving them a bigger target, but others argue that manufacturers should be able to offer different-sized vehicles. The key is setting the differential so the larger vehicles have to make greater proportional improvements to meet their targets.

I like the EU approach of prescribing CO2 emission levels rather than fuel efficiency goals. Gerhard Wörle of BMW said they have reduced the average emissions by 29% since 1990 and aim for a further 25% by 2020.

Meeting long-term standards will require lighter cars and better designs. It really is time we caught up with the rest of the world.

I had the misfortune to be in the centre of Christchurch on 22 February, calmly waiting for a toasted sandwich and coffee when the earthquake struck. It was a very scary experience. I was just lucky to have been in that particular building. Others died or were seriously injured because they were in different places.

Seeing the enormous damage in the city was a striking reminder of the importance of design to allow for the unforeseen. Ironically, as I was leaving the hotel where I had worked that morning on a report, engineers were going in for a lunch-time seminar drawing together lessons of the September 2010 earthquake for building design!

As the Richter scale is logarithmic, the category 9 earthquake off Japan was a frightening 500 times the strength of the Christchurch event. It is a tribute to their construction standards that so few buildings were seriously damaged.

But the resulting tsunami’s impact on the Fukushima reactors reminds us that we need to consider risks for coastal infrastructure. Earthquakes are relatively unlikely in Australia, but tsunamis and storm surges should be feared.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.