Interview with car industry expert David Lamb

(originally published - Summer 2008 newsletter)

David Lamb has been driving research into Low Emission Vehicle technologies since long before it was fashionable to do so. He has also volunteered his time and expertise to Greenfleet as a Board Member since 1997.  We've asked him to share his thoughts on the past and future of the motor car as we know it.

What do you think is the most sustainable alternative to replace the ULP family car in the long term?

Electricity.The difference between the peak load and the night-time load on the grid is substantial and could fuel at least a couple of million cars around the nation without increasing emissions. Any additional emissions from power stations would be less than the emissions from burning oil and most of the electricity used charging the cars would be at night time when there's plenty of spare energy in the grid (those giant generators don't switch off at night). As were place our coal-fired electricity with sustainable electricity the cars will get the benefit too, and that's probably a lot easier to do than other means of reducing vehicle emissions. As well, there's the prospect of fuelling a car free of cost and free of emissions as we put solar cells and wind turbines in our backyards.

How long do you think it will take us to replace the current family car with that solution (on a mass market scale - not just a few here and there)?

Many years. Think of it this way: we have 14 million road vehicles in Australia and we sell one million a year. If every new car sold today was a zero-emissions car, it would still take 15 years to change the whole fleet. And we're still along way from the starting gate. My guess is 25 years.

What are the major barriers to getting there? Infrastructure? Cost? Policy? Consumer acceptance?

All those things. We've had almost one hundred years of cheap oil and learning to live without cheap oil is very difficult, expensive and in some ways inconvenient because the old ways are so convenient. The car is a very complex machine, but it has reached the level of reliability where you can drive half a million kilometres and hardly do more than replenish the fuel. Remember checking the radiator? The oil level? Even tyre pressures require less frequent checking in the modern car. However, when people learn how reliable electric cars are, they'll wonder why it took so long to make the switch, to coin a phrase.

What do you see as the logical or necessary steps to overcome those barriers?

Firstly, the Green Car Fund is a good start and I'm really happy that Toyota has agreed to assemble the Camry Hybrid in Australia. There are lots of components for electric cars that are not made in Australia. Why? Simply because no-one has made electric or hybrid cars in Australia. The Camry Hybrid at least gets us on the road, so to speak.

What do you drive now and why?

I drive a Ford Focus. I can't justify driving anything bigger. I use it as little as possible, but I do acknowledge I'm lucky - I have a bus stop within 200metres and a tram within half a kilometre from my home.

What do you think is the single most important thing that people can do right now to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?

As an individual?

  • In terms of transport, avoid using the car as much as possible. Consider the 'road-miles' in the foods we eat and the products we buy.
  • Don't use appliances unless really necessary. That means switching off everything that's not being used and used and using a washing line instead of clothes dryer if possible.

In the workplace?

  • Don't leave computers on standby at night and lobby for fitting movement sensors for the lights. I worry about the number of brilliantly lit empty men's rooms there are.

You worked for Ford for almost 30 years and more recently have headed up CSIRO's Australian Automotive Technology Centre and then their Low Emission Vehicle project. What is the greatest environmental advance in mainstream automotive technology in that time?

Oh, that's tough. There have been so many. Engines have improved 25% to 30% in fuel efficiency in the past 20 years. Electronics have aided this and many other things such as safely features, stability systems and so forth. Tyres have improved enormously, lasting longer with better grip and reduced rolling resistance. The car battery is about to join the revolution too - just think about your mobile phone and camera battery and how that's improved. Well, those improvements are finding their way into cars and that will assist the evolution into electric cars.

Where are you heading next in your work to improve passenger vehicle technologies?

My work aims to highlight what is practicable from the theoretical. Transport and fuels affect the lives of just about everyone, so it's not surprising that people are attracted to notions of quick and easy solutions (just see the number of items in the stores that claim to make your car go better, further,faster). I lobby for the changes in policy that will lead us to a sustainable future. My granddaughter asks me, "If you admit that your generation caused the environmental mess we're in today, what are you doing about it?" I want to be able to look into my granddaughter's eyes and say that I'm doing my best to shine a light on the road ahead.