Nowt as queer as spokes

Equip­make’s bright idea

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

Bri­tain is about to have its very own Henry Ford of elec­tric car propul­sion, and his name is Ian Fo­ley. Through a com­bi­na­tion of rare en­gi­neer­ing in­sight, en­thu­si­asm for elec­tric ma­chines even when they weren’t fash­ion­able, clever plan­ning and help­ful semi-govern­ment fi­nance (plus a help­ing of luck), Fo­ley and his 20-man team at Equip­make in Hethel are pre­par­ing for a re­mark­able ex­pan­sion that within five years could re­sult in them man­u­fac­tur­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of elec­tric mo­tors in a brand-new Nor­folk fac­tory.

Al­ready well known in race and road car tech cir­cles, Fo­ley and Equip­make have re­cently come to far wider no­tice as the de­sign­ers, builders and sup­pli­ers of the four 295bhp APM200 elec­tric mo­tors and some of the power elec­tron­ics that will pro­pel the mighty 1180bhp four-wheel-drive Ariel Hiper­car, a high per­for­mance range ex­ten­der Equip­make is co-de­vel­op­ing with Delta Motorsport and Ariel.

Though Fo­ley is quick to ac­knowl­edge Hiper­car’s value in spread­ing Equip­make’s name and skills, he’s also clear that the com­pany’s aim is much larger than be­com­ing a maker of en­gines for high-per­for­mance elec­tric cars. A bus project and a sec­ond au­to­mo­tive cus­tomer project are al­ready on the boil, and the num­ber and qual­ity of se­ri­ous en­quiries from gi­ant au­to­mo­tive play­ers is ris­ing rapidly.

“Over the past cou­ple of years,” says Fo­ley, “the at­ti­tude of car com­pa­nies to launch­ing elec­tric mod­els has changed com­pletely. I wouldn’t say they’re pan­ick­ing, but many now feel an ur­gent need to get some sort of halo prod­uct out there on a very com­pressed timescale. Projects that might nor­mally take four to five years are hav­ing to be done in two.

❝ I al­ways had the feel­ing elec­tric cars were com­ing quickly ❞

“Po­ten­tial cus­tomers who feed their re­quire­ments for elec­tric mo­tors into Google tend to ar­rive sooner or later at our web­site. A grat­i­fy­ingly large num­ber seem to want ex­actly what we’re of­fer­ing. We’re a risk for them, of course, in the sense that a big tier-one sup­plier mak­ing the right prod­uct might be bet­ter. But there sim­ply isn’t a tier one with the right prod­uct.”

Equip­make’s pride and joy is a highly flex­i­ble de­sign it calls the spoke mo­tor, an in­te­rior per­ma­nent mag­net elec­tric ma­chine in which the mag­nets are ar­ranged ra­di­ally, like the spokes of a wheel. This gives the mo­tor the great­est torque den­sity go­ing, Fo­ley says, and Equip­make’s ver­sion per­mits more ef­fi­cient liq­uid cool­ing than pre­vi­ous spoke de­signs, highly de­sir­able be­cause well-cooled mag­net mo­tors can run faster and de­liver higher power for longer.

Fo­ley ac­knowl­edges a body of opin­ion against mag­net mo­tors (and in favour of in­duc­tion or switched re­luc­tance mo­tors), mostly be­cause of mag­net cost and price volatil­ity, but he bats the crit­i­cism away on the grounds of com­pact­ness and ef­fi­ciency. Equip­make has solved lin­ger­ing de­sign and pro­duc­tion prob­lems with pre­vi­ous spoke mo­tors, he says; the APM200 is roughly half the size and 80% the weight of ri­vals with the same out­put.

Ac­cord­ing to Fo­ley, who cut his en­gi­neer­ing teeth 20 years ago on Lo­tus’s ac­tive sus­pen­sion For­mula 1 cars, Equip­make cur­rently holds an ad­van­tage of around two years over the rest of the elec­tric mo­tor world. The chal­lenge will be to main­tain that, he says, though he makes it sound al­most straight­for­ward. Com­pared with those hec­tic days at Team Lo­tus, per­haps it will be.

Af­ter F1, then 34-year-old Fo­ley obeyed a long-held de­sire to start his own com­pany, so he founded Equip­make in 1993 to make elec­tronic con­trol sys­tems, data log­gers, pneumatic pad­dle shifts, rail­way sig­nalling giz­mos… in fact, any­thing his imag­i­na­tion al­lowed.

Be­fore long, he was work­ing with Wil­liams F1 on fly­wheel-based en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tems for rac­ing cars that are re­ally, he points out, high-speed elec­tric mo­tors. Soon adopted by Audi, the fly­wheels helped de­liver three Le Mans wins be­fore a reg­u­la­tion change made bat­ter­ies a bet­ter stor­age medium. But Equip­make’s high rep­u­ta­tion – and its founder’s in­valu­able en­gi­neer­ing net­work – had been well and truly es­tab­lished.

Fo­ley, who de­scribes him­self as a tech­nol­ogy nerd (“I love per­for­mance, but not nec­es­sar­ily 500-horse­power V12s”) be­came in­creas­ingly at­tracted to the idea of elec­tric propul­sion so, equipped with his fly­wheel knowledge, set about de­sign­ing and mak­ing elec­tric mo­tors suit­able for cars and trucks. Then, three years ago, Fo­ley aban­doned his habit of buy­ing Jaguars in favour of a Tesla Model S.

“Even quite re­cently,” he says, “peo­ple were say­ing elec­tric cars were years away, but I al­ways had the feel­ing they were com­ing quickly. In nearly three years and 54,000 miles, the Tesla has been fan­tas­tic and very, very easy to own. The cru­cial thing that makes it work is the Su­per­charger net­work. In three years, I’ve never seen a bro­ken charger, and I’ve never had to wait to use one. That’s Tesla’s ad­van­tage in a nut­shell.”

Al­though Fo­ley is very much a leader in elec­tric cars, even he is shocked at the speed of their ad­vance. Fo­ley says: “Un­til 18 months ago, our plan was to put our mo­tors into Hiper­car, get on with the bus project and let things de­velop. But ev­ery­thing has changed. There’s no longer any need to con­vince car mak­ers that they need elec­tric mo­tors.”

And Equip­make’s new future? “I break into a cold sweat when I say this,” says Fo­ley, “but our op­por­tu­nity is to be­come a tier-one busi­ness, em­ploy­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple and mak­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of en­gines.

“Of course, we’ll need to go step by step, in­creas­ing scale care­fully as we build the right qual­ity sys­tems and get the fi­nance in place. I own this 100% as it stands, but I guess we’ll need in­vestors to take things for­ward. That’ll be another chal­lenge. But there’s no doubt we have a huge op­por­tu­nity.”

Ian Fo­ley has great faith in his ver­sion of the spoke mo­tor

Hethel HQ may soon in­clude a new fac­tory

The ex­plo­sion of in­ter­est among car mak­ers in launch­ing elec­tri­fied cars has brought a raft of new busi­ness to Equip­make, which Fo­ley is hop­ing to ex­pand into a tier-one sup­plier

Equip­make is co-de­vel­op­ing the Hiper­car

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