Hydrogen cars for New Zealand?


On the television the other night I saw an advert from Hyundai about a new car that they are working on. It is NEXO. The ad shows a four wheel drive vehicle mounted and claims that the only emissions coming out are water.

If these claims by Hyundai are true then this is quite revolutionary. It offers a potential carbon free fuel cell option for cars. Hydrogen’s volatility is well known – the Hindenburg airship was filled with it and exploded in flames when struck by lightning in Paris – but because hydrogen is lighter than air it will have no problems dissipating, which is important because it to reduce likelihood of the fuel catching fire should the tank be punctured. But, in terms of climate change, hydrogen has NO carbon attached. It is simply H.

This raises a very interesting point to a topic of interest at the moment in New Zealand. What if Tiwai point is shut down because the owners cannot get a satisfactory deal for electricity? Tiwai Point gets its electricity from Manapouri power station deep in Fiordland and that electricity is not minor – Manapouri generates about 850 megawatts, of which about 530 megawatts are used by Tiwai point. All of this is electricity that would flood the market if it were no longer required and – some people honestly hope – will bring down power prices.

But this is not a new problem – it has been threatened before that the Tiwai Point facility will shut at some point and a whole lot of hemming and hawing has gone on about what to do with the electricity should it all be released to the market. I personally think it should be, but I am aware that hundreds of jobs – quite well paying ones at that in many instances – would be on the line.

IBut back to the hydrogen question. Is Tiwai Point actually seriously likely to close? If Tiwai Point aluminium smelter were to close and hydrogen vehicles did become a credible alternative to fossil fuel powered cars, it would be a useful location to establish a hydrogen plant. It would potentially maintain many of the jobs that would probably be lost if the smelter were to close, thereby continuing to provide a large source of employment to the Invercargill/Southland electorates.

With an election not more than 12 months away, supporting the development of hydrogen as a fuel source for cars in New Zealand is a great opportunity for which ever party has the gonads to try something different. Electric vehicles are not only hitting a bit of a stumbling block over price and fuel consumption, but also having to confront the fact that most New Zealanders simply cannot afford one. Could hydrogen fuel cell vehicles fill the void?

Time for N.Z.T.A. overhaul


New Zealand Transport Authority is a Government agency in strife. Racked by resignations, battered by damning staff survey responses and under the microscope internally for failings in the public arena, life must be tough being an N.Z.T.A. staff member.

The onus is on the N.Z.T.A. to acknowledge the harm it is doing to itself and to its staff. It becomes clear that the staff are feeling unappreciated, put down and lacking the empowerment necessary to perform their basic functions. When coupled with serious external failures such as not properly auditing a number of service stations and other automotive repair businesses on their issuance of Warrants of Fitness (W.O.F.), which led to hundreds, possibly thousands of cars being potentially improperly warranted, a issue of public interest is present.

Over the last year or more there has been a major recall of Takata airbags, after potentially fatal flaws were found in them. Takata airbags are found in a lot of New Zealand vehicles and the recall has resulted in thousands of cars having to get their airbags replaced. The recall is ongoing. Whilst this has not been linked to any problems at N.Z.T.A. that I am aware of, it reminds me of other road safety issues that N.Z.T.A. has been slow to act on:

  • Tour buses that are not roadworthy,
  • Bus drivers driving tour buses with little or no understanding or regard for New Zealand roads and conditions
  • Bus drivers who are not licenced
  • Explosion of large and oversized rigs on roads not fit to carry them
  • Dangerously long working hours for long haul drivers across numerous sectors

The safety of people, which should be paramount has been viewed otherwise. After major crashes, the Coroner examines the evidence gathered and makes recommendations. All too often – and this is not a problem unique to the transport sector – they are not fully implemented or simply ignored outright. And people wonder why accidents continue to happen.

The N.Z.T.A. is like any other public organization. It has accountability to the tax payer as much as it has accountability to the Ministry of Transport and the Government. This is in a decade where toxic internal workplace environments and their effects on employees has become a major occupational safety and health issue.Have the N.Z.T.A. got the message that for them to be a good employer, its internal culture, composition and leadership need to improve?

Or is the workplace culture of N.Z.T.A. a bit like the outmoded philosophy that it has operated on for too long now that motorways are king, whilst buses, trains and shipping are second class? I sincerely hope not, but I do wonder.

Soaring road toll something New Zealanders need to own


At the weekend I read of another fatal crash. This one killed 8 people, including a couple that were supposed to be getting married in May. Coming just a few weeks after a Chinese family in a van were involved in an accident near Tekapo on a gravel road that killed five and injured another three, and with a single week long period in which 26 people were killed, it really is time to confront a sobering problem.

There are only so many excuses we can continue to make for our sky rocketing road toll. And it frustrates me to no end the amount of excuse making that goes on.

How about looking at the many people who do not drive with their lights on when it is raining? Why do so many people go through the red light at the intersection? Or let themselves be found on the wrong side of the road when going around tight bends – the speed signs as one approaches tight bends are there for a reason: its the safest speed it is designed for and if you find yourself on the other side the truck coming around the corner will not be able to stop in time.

It is time to own the fact that we are not great drivers my fellow Kiwi’s. It is time to accept that not all of those pesky tourists who come in from China and elsewhere, who we moan about not knowing the rules are no worse in many respects than us. In many cases, the tourists are politer.

Even if we took the steps that I recommend and made all tourists coming off long haul flights wait twelve hours to get their cars; even if we made them sit a theory test before they were allowed to hire a rental car, it does not change some very sobering facts. It does not change the fact that we do not require for example that all of our new imports have their lights set to turn on when the driver starts the engine – they do in Canada. Nor are our judges consistent in sentencing convicted offenders. This is illustrated by there being at least one offender in New Zealand who has been convicted of drunk driving at least 12 times and was still driving when he last appeared before a judge.

We as New Zealanders have the power to change all of this. We have the power to

  • demand stiffer sentencing;
  • demand that all cars come preset to have their headlights come on when the engine is started
  • Make all licenced drivers get vehicle insurance
  • Make fleeing police an instantly jail worthy offence
  • Require alcohol locks permanently for anyone who drinks, drives and causes death and/or injury as a result of that drunk driving

And there are other things we can do. Such as stop the blame game with tourists, who despite their numbers increasing by 30% in the 10 years to 2014 are involved or cause a declining percentage of crashes involving death and/or injury.

It is our road toll in our country. Lets stop the blame game and own it.

Especially as wild weather, which is another thing our drivers are not good at adapting to, moves up the country. Driving home from work today I went up State Highway 1 briefly and a road that normally has cars doing 80km/h was down to 65-70km/h because of the wind driven rain and crap visibility. Yet I still saw people with no lights on; people driving too fast.

And we wonder why our road toll is so bad.

New Zealand transport policy still favours roads


Five days a week I drive 6km from my home to my work near Christchurch Airport. Each time I approach the Harewood Road State Highway 1 intersection I am reminded what a road loving nation we are. And two facts about New Zealand transport are undeniable:

  • There are too many cars on the roads with only one person driving them.
  • Too much freight goes by truck.

However getting people to get out of their cars and take more appropriate transport is proving difficult. For example car pooling is something that can only be done at community level. Because of that it might only be successful at community level and organized on social networking sites like Neighbourly.

In Christchurch the geography of the city, even post earthquake supports buses, and a crude bike wheel (ring and spoke) model would be best. A central exchange like the one that currently exists should have an inner bus ring (currently lacking), and an outer ring (currently serviced by the Orbiter bus which runs at 10 minute intervals during daylight hours. Spokes spaced at regularly intervals around the compass connect the ring routes. The Christchurch model is trying to reconcile with the post earthquake changes to the bus network.

What might work in Christchurch I accept will not work everywhere. This is why Wellington has a regular commuter train service out to Porirua, Upper and Lower Hutt, as well as Waikanae, and its inner suburbs. But whilst Wellington is lucky enough to have a good railway network its bus services seem to be in need of an overhaul, if the political debate in the lead up to the 2019 local government elections are anything to go by.

Trucking is an obvious mode of transport on New Zealand roads. The rental car company I work for knows this well as we often have long haul drivers coming in to pick or drop off cars. But also there are New Zealand roads where trucks simply should not be, because those roads immediate physical environment does not and will not in the future permit their safe transit – the roads around Kaikoura are one such example. And this is where I think the merchant marine might be useful. For non-urgent freight that simply does not need to be on the road, send it by ship might be more cost efficient. This model might also enable a ferry network to operate along the South Island’s east coast – a regular ferry from Lyttelton to Wellington did indeed used to operate.

In those same nine years, there was an opportunity to tighten up the road code and safety regime for buses. It was not taken and now we are having cowboy companies driving dungers or overseas companies with no knowledge or experience of our roads and road code. Fixing these will help to give people confidence in the bus networks again.

National M.P. for Rangitata Andrew Falloon in a sponsored Facebook advert was promoting a four lane highway from Christchurch to Ashburton. When I challenged him, he pointed out that National had subsidized Kiwi Rail by $250 million per annum. What Mr Falloon did not say was that National chose to back diesel locomotives from China instead of working with Hillside workshops in Dunedin and others who might have been able to design locomotives for New Zealand conditions. I had also in the past heard of drivers on lines in the North Island being concerned that the level crossing alarms were not working properly and having to approach level crossings on sections of the track where the speed limit was much higher than what they were doing. Mr Falloon might have to have a look at the state of the railways post-National.

The Leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges is claiming that National is environmentally responsible, yet he is promising to undo environmentally responsible things other parties have done. For example on one hand, yes, the Government has not properly thought through the oil and gas announcement. But here would have been a great opportunity for National to rip the rug from underneath them by announcing a nationwide biofuel programme that would:

  1. Create jobs in a sector not really understood
  2. Justify a suitably bigger investment in research to understand whether the N.Z. vehicle fleet is ready
  3. Show some environmental credentials by reducing the carbon emissions

The resistance to biofuels probably does not come from politicians so much as from petroleum companies, upset that their business model is no longer fit for purpose and trying desperately to stave off anything that end it. If a suitable blend can be developed the waste stream in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland might be able to sustain it.

I am however waiting, like much of New Zealand for substantive policy announcements on these issues by the Minister for Transport Phil Twyford. No timetable has been set, and maybe in that time, tired of a lack of direction New Zealanders might realize we need to own the problem.

Our geriatric vehicle fleet is costing New Zealand


In March the Ministry of Transport released its Annual Vehicle Fleet statistics for the 2017 year.

The size of the fleet has increased from 3,977,966 light vehicles in 2016 to 4,154,897 in 2017. As with previous years the average age remains stubbornly high at 14 years. The number of electric vehicles that have been registered has increased significantly from 940 to 2, but still makes only a tiny fraction of our total light vehicle fleet.

My parents have two vehicles. One is a 2007 Hyundai Getz, which has done 102,000 kilometres. They purchased it in 2010 with about 35,000 kilometres on the odometer. The Toyota Surf that was purchased in 2003 is even older, having come off the vehicle line in 1995. It has done 340,000 kilometres and would probably be good for another 100,000 kilometres.

The Hyundai Getz is 11 years old and below the national average. My parents are by no means the only ones with such old vehicles. My fathers brother owns a Toyota Surf as well that might even older and quite likely with as many kilometres on it. And the reasons for holding on to such old vehicles for so long is simple: reliable, do everything the owners want and well maintained they can last a long time.

Ford Falcons, Holden Commodore’s, Subaru Legacy’s, Toyota Surfs, RAV4’s, Corolla’s along with various Honda’s, Mazda’s, Suzuki’s all contribute substantially to the aging fleet.

Other factors are at play too, which the Government and New Zealand Transport Authority need to recognize. Many New Zealanders cannot afford newer vehicles and a lot of newer models have gone for style over substance, have features such as phones and fancy entertainment features that are simply not considered to be necessary.

There are mounting problems with the vehicle fleet though. Among the problems are:

  1. As they age, vehicles become more expensive to fix which may be put down to a shortage of parts for particular types
  2. As an older vehicle ages it becomes more dangerous – newer ones for ease of obtaining new parts, having accepted safety measures and ratings pose less of a risk to other road users
  3. New Zealand has climate change obligations to meet and reducing vehicle emissions will be a priority for this Government
  4. New Zealanders incomes have been largely static for a long time and unless they move, new vehicles entering the market will go through several owners before they look near affordable to lower and middle income brackets
  5. Were there to be a significant overhaul of the available product in the fuel supply market, newer types and biofuels might not be usable in older vehicles

Vested interests such in the motoring industry and political influences mean that significant resistance may be expected if a comprehensive attempt is made to update our aging light vehicle fleet. However the social and economic costs of doing so might be even higher.