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22 September 2017

The Age of the Electric Vehicle

Tag(s): Business, Technology
I recently attended LCV 2017, the 10th Low Carbon Vehicle conference organised by CENEX. I first blogged about electric cars back in 2009 when I attended the second of these events.[i] It is clear that the industry has come a long way and we are very much entering the age of the electric vehicle; I say vehicle rather than car as there are already electric vans etc. being manufactured.

The conference had about 150 exhibitors and about a third were only demonstrating technology for electric vehicles and another third were demonstrating electric as well as hybrid and other sources of power. There were many seminars on the subject and most of the major speakers referred to it. Of course there were other exciting developments like connected and autonomous vehicles, but in this blog I will concentrate on electrification.

Konstanze Scharring, Director of Policy at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), set the scene with a few statistics. The number of low emission cars on Britain’s roads has grown strongly in the ten years of the show and is now 366,000. Of these the majority are hybrid and just 1.6% are pure electric vehicles. This contrasts with7% in the Netherlands and an amazing 26% in Norway, especially when you think that Norway is self-sufficient in oil. The key drivers of growth in electric vehicles are the evolution of public charging infrastructure and changes in public policy such as Transport For London’s decision not to apply the congestion charge to electric vehicles.

Graham Hoare, Director of Global Vehicle Evaluation and Verification at Ford and Chairman of the Automotive Council Technology Group, [ii] welcomed the new Government Industrial Strategy in which vehicle electrification has been prioritised. In April this year Business Secretary Greg Clark announced the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, committing over £1 billion over the next 4 years.

Funding will focus on 6 key areas:

·         Healthcare and medicine
·         Robotics and artificial intelligence
·         Batteries for clean and flexible energy storage
·         Self-driving vehicles
·         Manufacturing and materials of the future
·         Satellites and space technology.

Four of these will directly benefit the automotive sector.  £246 million has been allocated to the Faraday Challenge, to ensure the UK leads the world in the design, development and manufacture of batteries for the electrification of vehicles.

For Graham the process of electrification of the vehicle is nothing less than a complete transformation of the traditional process of the Internal Combustion Engine and the Powertrain.

Simon Edmunds, Director of Manufacturing and Materials, Innovate UK, which will have the responsibility to manage the completion process for the Faraday Challenge, told us that up to 50% of the value in an electric vehicle is in the battery. An entirely new supply chain will need to be created.  The £246m will be distributed in three programmes:

·         EPSRC will control £80 million for Application led research.
·         Innovate UK will have £88m for Collaborative R&D
·         The Advanced Propulsion Centre will spend £78m on demonstrating and testing capability

There is a new Advisory Board chaired by the distinguished Richard Parry-Jones, former chair of the Automotive Council and known in the trade as the original ‘Metro Man’.[iii]

Dick Elsy, CEO, High Value Manufacturing Catapult,[iv] expressed his enthusiasm for the Faraday Challenge with the call “Batteries for Britain”. He set the exam question as: “What will it take for 50% of UK car production to be heavily electrified by 2030?” The answer: "We want to self-destruct”.

In conventional vehicles a third of the costs are in the Powertrain. In electric vehicles more than 50% of the cost is the battery. It will need major technical leaps in cost, energy density, power density and safety. The first life of a battery now is 8 years. By 2035 that needs to be 15 years. The temperature range in which it can operate needs to widen significantly and the recycling capability needs to cover most of the stock versus just 10% today.

Batteries don’t travel well before they are installed in the vehicle. They are large, heavy and chemically unstable. Consequently battery production needs to be aligned with vehicle assembly. If the UK wants to maintain its very healthy vehicle assembly business it must generate local battery manufacture.

Olaf Schilgen, in charge of Future Technologies, Electromobility, External Affairs and Sustainability at Volkswagen demonstrated how their first electrical vehicles were not optimised as they fitted the battery into the space previously taken by the powertrain. As their range was huge with over 100 models they could not fundamentally redesign them all at once. But gradually they would move to designing the vehicle around the battery. This would give opportunities for more space in the vehicle with larger wheels as there was no central tunnel. In a sense they would be going full circle as the VW Beetle was rear-wheel drive; the Golf is front-wheel drive, and the new electric VW will be rear-wheel drive.

To gain public acceptance we need to break down any barriers to entry. The battery range must be long to remove range anxiety. The charging infrastructure must be in place for the same reason. VW’s forecasts are that from a position where 1% of their volume is now electric this will rise to 10%-15% by 2025 and exceed 50% by 2030.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place. Nissan already has 4,000 “supercharger” stations. Its latest Leaf model has a range of 400km while 80% of Europeans drive less than 100 km per day. Tesla plans to expand its global network to 10,000 and Daimler, BMW, VW and Ford plan to jointly install 400 stations allowing cars to recharge in minutes. At the show I saw an app, Chargie, which allows people to rent out their home chargers.

In my 2009 blog I explained that while the electrification of vehicles is desirable as it removes tailpipe emissions from our streets, it does not reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as most of our power stations run on coal or gas. In the eight years that have elapsed since then there has been some change in this but not much. A reliance on wind as our principal renewable energy source seems particularly perverse as it’s one of the least reliable and there are whole days with no wind.

The recent announcement by Michael Gove, now in charge at DEFRA that he planned to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles after 2040 in a bid to rid our streets of carbon emissions will only make sense if both sides of the equation are addressed.

As I have explained in this blog the car industry are all preparing for the change. They welcome it as do I. But it depends not only on public acceptance and on meeting a great many substantial technical challenges. It also means developing an infrastructure in our National Grid that is fit for purpose. There has been no coherent public policy in electrical power for decades and the result is a decaying fleet of old technology power stations backed up in some cases by local generators. If we are going to convert the national vehicle park from carbon to electricity it means taking out the huge storage of petrol and diesel in the tanks on board and at storage centres and petrol stations. That all disappears and must be replaced by the equivalent additional power capacity.

It is not up to the automotive industry to do that bit. They are doing theirs and doing it very well with confidence and cooperation across industry and academia.

[ii] Graham is also a member of the Advisory Board I chair at the Digital Engineering & Test Centre.      
[iii]  I have worked with Richard and with all of these three organisations.
[iv] I knew Dick when he was CEO of Torotrak plc and I was CEO of NXT plc, two similar businesses, though in different sectors.

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