07/12/2021 - 14:00

Vision doesn’t come without risk

07/12/2021 - 14:00


Upgrade your subscription to use this feature.

As EVs become the next big thing, it’s worth noting that WA had a chance to get there first.

Vision doesn’t come without risk
Terry Jackson’s prototype EVs.

A glance in the rear-view mirror can often provide clarity when considering the ‘how on earth did we get here?’ conundrum.

I have previously analysed a few innovations that Western Australians spearheaded commercially that came to nought, at least from the point of view of creating new industries here.

Battery technology in the 1970s and 1980s (ZBB Energy) and contactless smart cards in the 1990s (ERG) are a couple of the ideas that were on the road to commercialisation here before they fizzled out.

Both survived in some form in the hands of foreign companies but either the technology was simply beaten by something else, or they were just too far ahead of their time.

A part of me always wondered what might have been if these ideas had genuine state government backing.

Although such support may be anathema for avid capitalists, it is worth considering if it could have changed the landscape.

ERG couldn’t even win a transport ticketing contract in Perth when it had secured cities such as San Francisco and Hong Kong.

ZBB’s zinc bromide technology still exists in the commercial world, but the state of WA never made any attempt to harness this technology.

I would like to say that’s because WA is more capitalist, but government intervention has been provided for natural resources such as mining, petroleum, and timber, and that has worked in many ways.

Governments backing physical things, like growing state forests or subsidising the Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline, seems a lot safer than underwriting an entrepreneur or scientist who is fervently pushing an idea.

But as I watch Tesla become one of the most valuable companies in the world and wannabes coming in its wake, such as electric vehicle company Rivian, which listed this month and is already worth more than General Motors, I wonder what might have been for WA.

A few years ago, I ventured out to Perth manufacturing and technology success story Kreepy Krauly, pioneered by Terry Jackson and now run by his children.

I received a tour of the premises but because the factory was off limits to non-proprietary eyes, I found myself in a storeroom looking at two examples of electric cars developed decades earlier.

Few people could have had better credentials to have a crack at this idea.

Mr Jackson was a technology pioneer, having adopted the Kreepy Krauly design from the primitive model he brought to Australia to create the sophisticated plastic versions that have scooted around the world’s swimming pools since.

And he had the capital to experiment, as these pictures attest.

Regrettably, Terry Jackson was already frail and beyond interviews by the time I was shown these amazing prototypes, particularly the green one that looks like something from The Jetsons.

I also still have a sample smart card from ERG, which could have allowed me to buy things from a couple of participating Perth newsagencies.

ERG was listed, doing well, and had global contracts.

So, is it fanciful to believe that WA could have produced a Tesla 30 years ago?

Could we have been the forge for a new automotive industry?

Could we have been the new contactless transaction capital, with all the technology development that would have spawned here, including all the consumer analytics that followed such developments?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that just because something starts here it will go on to create a giant industry.

Austal led the world in aluminium shipbuilding and fast-ferry development in the 1980s.

It is a successful company, but the bulk of its operations are overseas now.

And while the industry is strong here, there are many parts of the world where shipbuilding is much, much bigger.

We have a good foothold in a great niche.

Even solar hot water, being pioneered in WA by Solahart, has not meant that sector features prominently in our economy.

Solahart was acquired by Japanese gas appliance giant Paloma through its Rheem subsidiary in Australia in 2001.

Sometimes it is about the size of the market.

We are gigantic in iron ore because we have the rocks, but the steel is made elsewhere because that is where the people live.

Sometimes it is a matter of timing.

Battery-powered cars have been around in various forms for decades, but it is climate change that is driving the revolution in car making, not the availability of electric vehicles.


Subscription Options