British technology is a driving force behind autonomous cars
Strong demand for electric and self-driving cars is forcing manufacturers to innovate rapidly, reports Hannah Boland in Japan
It’s pretty easy to spot the Britons abroad – but this time it’s not sunburnt skin or pints of beer, or even football chants. No, this time it’s a little easier. They’re surrounded by gigantic union flags. The UK has sent a delegation of companies to the Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers spring congress for years, both to network with Japanese automotive giants and bring investment into the UK. But recently there has been a real expansion of the UK’S presence, thanks to the burgeoning interest in what homegrown companies have to offer.
“People are really interested in what we’re doing in Britain and what technologies and new companies are available,” says Garry Wilson from the Advanced Propulsion Centre, a joint government and industry body focused on bringing products to market. “I think we’re right among it as a top player most definitely – we can hold our heads high.”
This excitement about the UK couldn’t have come at a better time. The automotive sector is undergoing massive change, and this change can be seen in four specific ways – connected, autonomous, shared and electric, or CASE as they’re known.
“What’s happening is almost like when you boil a pan of water. It’s just about to bubble, it’s just there and a bit more heat and it will boil over,” says Richard Fairchild, of driverless pod company Aurrigo.
“It’s a good place to be; it’s really exciting but also a bit scary.”
This year, the UK delegation, on the Innovation Mission, took up the largest single space in the exhibition hall, a vast area decked in red, white and blue, and crammed with companies exploring everything from autonomous technology to lightweight composite materials.
Many of these businesses have sprung up thanks to a rather unique ecosystem of government support, which carries ideas from the concept stage through to Innovate UK and proof of concept, and then to commercialisation.
In 2017, the three bodies responsible for guiding companies through those stages pledged to invest £350m across the projects.
A large portion of those now moving into the later stages, into commercialisation, are focused on electric – an area that is seeing vast amounts of interest as the Government takes steps to propel the UK into a cleaner future.
Earlier this year, a leaked proposal suggested ministers were planning to ban the sale of new cars that could not run on electricity for at least 50 miles by 2040.
In the UK, there are currently around 100,000 electric vehicles out of 31m cars on the road.
Some are sceptical about whether the UK is ready for an electric future, including the most senior British Toyota executive, Tony Walker, who earlier this month warned that government policy could end up pricing ordinary people out of the market, given it could mean the end of self-charging hybrids. “The self charging hybrid vehicles that we make are not able to achieve 50 miles continuous in electric, zero-emission mode,” he told the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee.
“You would need the technology used in a plug-in hybrid, which is a more expensive battery. That would be a big challenge for affordability.
“If you’re saying somehow you know that battery costs will come down … how come you know that and we don’t?”
Not only is the technology expensive, but many argue that there aren’t enough charging stations.
A recent report by data company Emu Analytics found the UK would need a six-fold rise in electric vehicle charging points by 2020 to meet demand. However, this assumes that supply of the vehicles keeps up with demand – something some say is a major hurdle for the industry to overcome.
Colin Herron, of electric vehicle consultancy Zero Carbon Futures, works closely with Nissan, BMW, Renault and VW, providing advice on how to deliver low-carbon projects. He says the Government’s announcements are “all aspirational”.
“Sunderland has got the only integrated battery plant in Europe, and it makes the Nissan Leaf electric car and it makes 50,000 … for Europe, which is about 2,500 per country and you still hear people saying, ‘if you put 1,000 more charging points we’ll have more cars’. No, you won’t, not until they build another battery plant.”
Around the world, there are expected to be 26 battery “megafactories” by 2021, each of which will cost around £1bn and around half of them are set to be in China.
“You’ve got to be realistic, are we going to be world leaders in battery manufacturing? No, because the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese are going to do that,” Herron says.
However, there is one way in which the UK can move ahead in this area.
“There is a niche for us, and that is that we are actually a safe pair of hands. So long as we’re not overly expensive, people will invest in us. Certain countries have a long history with us and they actually like working with us,” Herron says.
While the UK may not take a dominant position in battery manufacturing, there is a cluster of innovative businesses around the battery production process springing up.
Take two companies working closely with Nissan: Hyperdrive, which is designing systems that battery cells can sit in to make them more efficient, and Ceres Power, a company developing a range extender for batteries, meaning cars can essentially charge up while they’re running.
“We have to play to our strengths,” Hyperdrive’s Stephen Irish says.
“As a country, we have a global reputation for innovation. You just have to keep doing it, keep that advantage and exploit it in the right way. Export doesn’t have to be a component, it can be an idea like Dyson has proven.”
Although the UK is carving out its own niche in electric, it is in the connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) space where British companies really move to the front of the pack, setting themselves up to take a slice of a market that is expected to be worth £907bn globally by 2035.
In an independent study released earlier this year, the UK was ranked second globally for innovation in the self-driving sector, and first for policy.
It is an area that the Government is increasingly throwing its support behind, both in terms of cash – around £120m has been invested in more than 70 CAV research and development projects – and promoting those businesses on a global stage.
Last week alone, the Governmentbacked co-ordinating group for the development of connected autonomous vehicles, Meridian Mobility, was holding talks with the Tokyo Olympics organising body over the testing of driverless pods in the UK ahead of the 2020 Olympics, with the city hoping to use the vehicles to ferry crowds around. The UK is well positioned to provide the facilities for the testing of autonomous vehicles.
In Britain, there are four sites, two of which are public – the UK Smart Mobility Living Lab in London and Future Midlands Mobility in the Midlands – and the other two are controlled test-beds.
These offer a realistic urban test-bed at Millbrook, Bedfordshire, and a limit handling track in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The Government has invested £51m in those test-beds to date.
Meridian’s Al Clarke says the conversations taking place at the Japanese conference this year “suggest the UK is very attractive to develop this technology”, adding: “Don’t forget we’ve got world-class congestion in London. If you want to learn about how to operate a vehicle you can come to work in the UK where people can test in both rural and urban locations.”
Daniel Ruiz, chief executive of the body, isn’t worried that the UK could become purely a test-bed though. He sees a future where the nation could embed itself within the development of the technology.
“You’re testing complex products in a complex environment and that, coupled with adoption of the overall systems, means there should be a case for not just testing but also manufacturing in the UK.”
What the future of the UK’S manufacturing sector will look like is a question that is on the minds of many automotive companies.
Currently, the industry employs 170,000 people in vehicle design and manufacturing, the bulk of whom are based in three areas: the West Midlands, home to Jaguar Land Rover; “motorsport valley”, a cluster of Formula 1 teams centred around Oxford; and in the North East, around the Nissan factory.
Nathan Marsh, from consultancy Atkins, says the UK must address this soon: “Let’s assume we automate the design and manufacture of electric and autonomous vehicles, and remove the human from the manufacturing loop.
“The upside is it’s faster, cheaper, and these things will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The downside is what have we done to society? Let’s have that conversation now before we inadvertently do it.”
Meridian’s Ruiz added:
“We are at such an exciting time now that we talk about a transport revolution, which is akin to the transition from horse to car, from typewriter to computer. I think that in five years’ time, we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
£120m The amount the UK Government has invested in more than 70 projects for connected and autonomous vehicles
‘As a country, we have a global reputation for innovation. You just have to keep that advantage’
The three millionth Qashqai rolls off the production line in Sunderland, left, which remains a hub of car making activity. Below, RDM Group’s autonomous vehicle, the