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Global search for alternative fuels

That's the view of General Motors' planner Larry Burns, who is leading the company's switch from petrol to an alternate fuel future. Burns, the vice-president of research and development and strategic planning based in Detroit, was in Australia recently when Carsguide interviewed him about GM's future. He says Australia must end its dependence on imported oil and capitalise on the country's bank of alternative energy sources.

Burns says we should start with LPG and then look down the track at everything from compressed natural gas to hydrogen and even solar power.

And he talks big about the GM Volt electric car, hydrogen, a nuclear future for motoring and improvements to GM Holden's home-grown Commodore.



“I definitely would focus on energy diversity, I would ask myself, do I need to be importing any petroleum at all into this country,” he says. “I would look at LPG as a starting point. I think that's

a very exciting opportunity you have here already, there's a distribution for that already and the natural gas is relatively inexpensive and relatively clean.

“I would anticipate compressed natural gas down the road and, longer term, I would ... go after solar big time. I do think it's going to be economically viable and then I would look at bio-mass.

“And then I would anticipate that fuel cell vehicles and plug-in electrics are going to be very real solutions and set myself up for that.”



“Clearly, the 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 the supply of petroleum is plateauing. But 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, or something like that. So you have 25 per cent improvement — how much time have you bought yourself?

“If you believe that 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 per annum. So, 10 years from now after that miracle last night, we'll start consuming more petroleum for automotive than we did when we had this miracle happen.”



“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 $US8.25 a gallon (about $2.50 per litre). So the wake-up call really is where gasoline is relatively inexpensive, like the US. And it is not just a wake-up call for auto companies, but for consumers [and] political leaders.

“Gasoline became very, very inexpensive 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. One of the things I get very concerned about is: `What if petroleum dropped back under $20 a barrel?”



“You have all of these people digging their heels in thinking there is a simple answer and that's the only thing you should invest in, and in fact you have to invest in all of it. Then we get paralysed by that indecisiveness on people thinking it's one answer. 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 tend to like natural gas over gasoline promote that and they overly criticise all the other ones. People who tend to like ethanol overly promote that and they overly criticise all the other ones.”



“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,” he says. “I was intrigued by how much sunshine you have and solar energy continues to look promising longer term. I'm intrigued by how much natural gas you have and the potential for LPG and CNG vehicles and, quite frankly, I'm intrigued by the amount of bio-mass that could exist, both in the form of municipal waste and also plants that we don't need. So you can find a way to reduce the [car's] dependence on petroleum by finding pathways for this energy to get to the automobile.”



“Right now, in the world today, there's enough hydrogen being produced to fuel over 200 million fuel cell vehicles. That's almost a quarter of the cars in the world could be fuelled by hydrogen. What's all that hydrogen being used for? It's used to make fertiliser — one half of it. The other half is used as input [for] making gasoline. By 2012 [we estimate] just the hydrogen used at refineries could fuel 175 million vehicles with fuel cells.”



“The sun shines on my roof, I create electricity and I put it in my electric vehicle. The time frame on LPG is right now ... the bio-mass time frame is three to five years. The good news on bio-mass technology is it's already very, very inexpensive to make your car capable of running on E85 and we'll find clever ways with LPG and compressed natural gas to get more cost out as well. I want to emphasise that this is not food-based bio-mass ... it's garbage.”



“We think the tipping point for fuel-cell vehicles is at the point where we have sufficient scale and sufficient cost and market learning. That could be 2018 to 2020 and you might ask, `Can the world wait that long?'. Well, we're not waiting. We're playing hard on ethanol, we're playing hard on plug-in electrics, we have eight hybrids [in the US], and we'll have eight more in the next two years, and we're pushing solutions like CNG and LPG — and that is energy diversity.”



“I know nuclear is not necessarily the right thing in Australia but in the US I would build one nuclear plant on a closed military base so it's secure.

I'd dedicate it to creating hydrogen ... you can make a lot from a nuclear plant. I'd introduce hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles using that because they're an exciting vehicle customers like and then I'd go to OPEC and say, `Do you want to talk?' ... we don't necessarily have to rely on petroleum any more.”

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