Every few months, the doomsayers find ways to flood media outlets with gloomy tales of a world in which carbon-based fuels have disappeared and we are left queuing for our turn at the fast charger or waiting for hydrogen that may never materialise.
One day of course, it will become harder to buy petrol and diesel, but what if there was a sudden and immediate halt to oil production?
Severe shortages during World War 2, then in the 1950s and 1970s gave the world a taste of life without petroleum fuels, but none of them saw a complete halt to petro-chemical production. What would the world do if that happened?
Could a synthetic fuel be invented that would work in petrol and diesel engines? Could it be produced and distributed with the same ease and at a similar cost to petrol? What alternative power units are available and could be pushed into production to keep our cars, trucks and buses running.
Long before there was any thought that the world could run out of hydrocarbon-based fuels, alternatives were being developed. Some, like LPG, were adopted during the 1970s, some remain in bottom drawers and others are just too wacky to offer a serious alternative. Here are some options.
Designers have been using electrical energy to make vehicles move for almost as long as there have been motor vehicles. The first viable electric cars appeared in the 1890s and predictably were used as taxis. Electric vehicles fell from favour during the 1920s and even when oil shortages became severe, car-makers were slow to rethink the technology. During the past 50 years various manufacturers have explored hybrid or full-electric propulsion and sales overseas have expanded rapidly. Australia with its big distances and relatively cheap conventional fuels has been slow to adopt the electric vehicle and carmakers have also been reluctant to make electrically propelled models that meet our needs. However, the first one into the market with an all-electric dual-cab utility could be onto a winner.
CNG and LPG
Anyone who has ridden in a cab or on a commuter bus will likely have experienced gas as an automotive fuel. LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) became popular during the 1970s and ’80s as petrol and diesel prices increased. Taxis were among the first to sprout cumbersome gas tanks which reduced luggage space and were frustrating to fill, but otherwise it was hard to save money by converting to LPG. Leaks were problem and limited range made gas-fueled vehicles impractical for long-distance driving. CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) was used mainly in heavy vehicles such as delivery trucks and urban-area buses that made short journeys then returned to their depots for refuelling.
Newsworthy of late have been Government predictions that Australia will become a major source of industrial hydrogen. As an element, hydrogen is all around us, but isolating, storing and safely transporting the volatile gas has stopped it being viable as a vehicle fuel. BMW more than a decade ago exhibited an engine that burned hydrogen in a similar manner to hydrocarbon fuels. However, for the power unit to function the fuel needed be pressurised and kept in a liquid state at -432C. Other manufacturers including Honda and General Motors favoured fuel cells which would use the hydrogen gas to generate electricity which ran electric motors.
Gas Turbine & Jets
Of all the manufacturers that might have pioneered jet power for road-going vehicles, it was stodgy old Rover in the UK that made the break. In 1950 and based on its 75 ‘Cyclops’ sedan, Rover built a car that used gas turbines for power and went on to top 240km/h in speed trials. Not content, the company in 1963 entered a gas-turbine coupe in the Le Mans 24 Hour race and finished in the equivalent of 8th place outright. However, it was Chrysler in the USA which brought automotive jet power closest to commercial reality. In 1963, 50 examples of the Chrysler Turbine Car were released to selected individuals for real-world testing. In 1964, after being trialled quite successfully and run on ‘fuels’ ranging from chip fat to tequila and Chanel No.5 perfume, the cars were collected and the majority scrapped.
These charcoal-fuelled furnaces could be attached to the rear of conventional cars, allowing them to run on a mixture of wood gas and kerosene. They became popular in Australia during World War 2 when petrol for private use was almost impossible to obtain and various manufacturers supplied ‘burners’ of different designs. One of the most popular came from General-Motors Holden and was attached to a frame that fitted onto the rear of General Motors cars; hinged so it allowed access to the boot. Other versions completely filled the boot space and had a roof-mounted ‘gas bag’ to store excess charcoal fumes.
Powered By Steam
Land speed records over many years been regularly set and broken but the record for the highest speed achieved by a steam-powered car stood unchallenged for decades. Why the delay? Apparently because nobody since the 1920s has cared much about running motor vehicles on steam or trying to break an obscure record. An Australian designer during the 1970s displayed a steam car called the Gvang, but nothing came of the project. Then in 2009, a British vehicle by the name of Inspiration with 12 boilers heated by LPG and super-sleek bodywork set a new record, which still stands, at 225.055km/h.
No one has as yet produced a working prototype of a nuclear-fuelled vehicle and the chances of one appearing seems unlikely. In 1957, against a background of the Cold War and bomb tests, Ford displayed a 3/8th scale model of a nuclear car. With wings and fins the Ford Nucleon looked ready to fly and could probably have scored itself a spot in the Thunderbirds TV series. Decades would pass before anyone again considered building a nuclear vehicle, but in 2009 Cadillac headlined the Chicago Auto Show with a full-sized ‘concept’ car that was intended to run on an element called Thorium. The thorium reactor, Cadillac said, would use a concentrated beam of energy to boil water and run the vehicle on an endless supply of steam. No further progress was made.
Air as a means of propulsion was trialled during the earliest years of automotive production, but it took until 2007 for French-based Motor Developments International to display an air-powered design which was supposedly to be built by Tata Motors as a taxi or light delivery vehicle. Nothing happened, however during 2012 a prototype with AirPod signage was seen keeping pace with the traffic on an Indian street. Attempts were then made during 2014 to initiate production on the Italian island of Sardinia and also to generate US investor interest, but to date no production models have been released.
Enthusiast Insurance hasn’t come into contact with some the more obscure propulsion units mentioned here, but we certainly have facilities to cover electric, LPG and even those vehicles from the Veteran and Vintage eras that run on steam.
At Enthusiast, vehicles that see the least use are the ones that save their owners the most money. Even better, the whole process from quote to completion can happen in a few minutes online and at any time of the day or night. Just visit www.enthusiast.com.au and click on Quick Quote.