DAY IN THE LIFE
The ex-Caterham engineer has turned his attention from sports cars to driverless Pods
Jez Coates: Caterham 7s to electric Pods
Iknow that Milton Keynes still makes some people laugh, but it’s an ideal laboratory. The separation between pedestrians and roads was thought out thoroughly, and it’s a very green, calm place, with a lot of civic pride.
It’s where our driverless Pod called the LUTZ [Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone] Pathfinder will be introduced. I’m chief engineer of vehicle projects at RDM Group, so it’s my job to deliver the prototypes on schedule, and after that to build a batch of 40 Pods for a taxi test programme in Milton Keynes, moving along the town’s pavements.
We’re working with the Mobile Robotics Group at Oxford University on the interface to the autonomous control system that allows it to remotely move, drive, stop, steer. We have to make sure the vehicle will move only when it’s convinced there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
For 23 years I was with Caterham, mostly as technical director, and my home is still in north Kent. Very convenient for Caterham’s factory in Dartford, with lots of secret backwaters that made excellent test routes.
Now I commute to Coventry every week. It’s a horrible drive so I often catch the train on Sunday night. At Caterham, I worked with Rover to fit the K-series engine in the car. That’s when I met Rover engineer Dave Fender. Now I’m his lodger at Leamington Spa. From there, it’s a ten-mile commute. I have a staff of 20, and I’m usually in by 8.30.
The LUTZ Pathfinder is the brainchild of the Government’s Transport System Catapult, designed to kickstart development of new transport systems and technology. We won it because we have a good design and all the skills to deliver it.
I started at Leyland when it was the world’s biggest manufacturer of trucks and buses. Not as sexy as cars, but they sponsored me as a graduate in 1976 and it was a fantastic training in proper manufacturing.
The widow of a Leyland chairman funded a garage workshop for us, instead of a statue of her late husband, and 17 of us kids had Lotuses. I had an Elan. Thanks to that garage, you could write it off, rebuild it, and take it out again.
In 1983 Caterham offered me a job. We went from a cottage industry to a proper brand selling 800 cars a year. I developed lots of new models – the all-independent CSR was my proudest achievement. All the projects had to pay for themselves within a year, so it was tough, but I never minded working ’til 10 at night because I loved it.
I still own two Caterhams: the only CSR with a K-series engine, and the last Caterham 21, plus a Zolfe Orange GTC4, the track car I designed after leaving Caterham.
Each morning at RDM, I’ll walk around the plant with my job list to monitor progress on different projects. As well as the Pod, we’re working on a project to ‘hybridise’ a small van – to easily add a switched-reluctance electric motor to an existing petrol-powered vehicle. In some of our brainstorming sessions I find I am the voice of reality. The demonstrator we’ll build has to be deliverable.
We have a communal lunch area where I sit with the guys and have a chat, trying not to talk about work.
There’s intense activity before the second Pod prototype is delivered to MIRA for tests. There’s a lot of functionality involved because it uses sensors, cameras, radar and Lidar, and it’s evolving fast. Packaging all this is vital, and I think Issigonis would have been pleased with how much we’ve packed into it. There’s a manual system too because the test vehicles will always have a safety driver on board.
I like to get hands-on. I spent an afternoon helping designers complete a steering part using CAD; something we can laser-cut overnight and fit to the vehicle the next day. That used to take three months at Leyland.
I am starting to plan the Pod factory – not scary because we built more than 40 Caterhams a month. And, anyway, RDM already manufactures parts and systems for Land Rover, Aston Martin and Morgan.
At 6pm, when everyone else has gone home, my other agenda begins of reports, dialogue, and some clear thinking. I am often here late. Dave and I go to the pub a couple of nights a week, and we occasionally go to the Hook Norton Brewery, home of my favourite beer.
I love the country. I grew up in Cumbria, and I still have my parents’ house there. I also have a share in a narrowboat. I like that because you can only go at 3mph.
Funnily enough, I’ve often sneaked through the back of Milton Keynes on it, noticing how lush the place is…