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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front Page -

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

Pod Zero

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.