The car industry relies on supply chains—that brings riskby Phil New / December 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
In 1868, Coventry Sewing Machine got an unusual order.
A firm in Paris asked if they could use their machining skills to make a few Velocipedes, a kind of proto-bicycle that was popular in France. With typical Midlands can-do attitude, they fulfilled the order and more business followed. The firm soon changed their name to the Coventry Machinists.
And so started the city and the region’s journey to becoming a cycling and then an automotive powerhouse.
Henry Lawson patented the first “safety bicycle” in 1876. Another Coventrian JK Starley, developed the Rover Safety bicycle—which became the blueprint for modern bicycles.
From there it was a small leap for Midlands companies like Austin to move from two wheels to four, incorporating and mastering the new innovation of the internal combustion engine. The region’s automotive industry began to thrive, providing jobs and a source of pride for both the Midlands and the UK for more than a century.
But the advent of concerns about air pollution and climate change pose a new question for the sector: can it out-innovate the upstarts from Silicon Valley and Guangdong to own the electric vehicle future? Or will its history, its expertise count against it in the new world.
The UK certainly has the engineering and design pedigree that will be essential in the future. Firms like Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin produce beautiful, aspirational, reliable cars that are sold across the world.
And they also have the workforce; since the privatisation of the bloated British Leyland, the sector has transformed itself, attracting investment from across the world since the 1980s. This has brought new techniques and ideas. As a result, UK car manufacturers are among the world’s most productive.
But electric vehicles will require new innovations.
Regenerative braking was developed by Formula 1 teams based in the UK, including Red Bull and McLaren, before being adopted for hybrid passenger cars across the world.
Indeed, the lithium ion battery—an invention that has transformed both consumer electronics and now automotive transport—was mastered in an Oxford laboratory by Peter Goodenough.
The government has invested £250m in the Faraday Institution to regain the UK’s leadership in batteries and master the electro-chemistry to make electric vehicles not just cleaner than conventional cars, but cheaper and more reliable.
That investment came in Philip Hammond’s 2016 budget, which saw the biggest increase in science and innovation spending for 40 years—something the government does not celebrate enough.
Innovation centres such as Warwick Manufacturing Group will benefit, which supports more efficient electrical machines and power electronics. And my own institution, Energy Systems Catapult, which aims to accelerate the transformation of another sector where the UK has historical pedigree; energy.
Traditional silos in the energy sector are breaking down—with electric vehicles needing to complement the electricity system, harnessing the potential of electric vehicles as a store and supply of electricity when system demand is high.
In the future, you should be able to power your television from your Nissan Leaf if it’s cheaper than the grid. But this means rethinking completely how our power and energy markets work.
If we get it wrong we will end up having to build many more wires and expensive power stations, pushing up costs for energy consumers and failing to cut our emissions. But getting smart charging right could save around £45bn in extra generation costs alone.
Capturing the economic and industrial opportunity of electric vehicles will therefore require us to think differently about our entire energy system, better understand the new interactions within it, and carry out large-scale testing of how new technology can benefit consumers.
Britain’s ability to stay ahead in emerging sectors like EVs depends on our ability to build the economic ecosystems that make it easy to test and develop new ideas.
While Dyson recently decided to manufacture its new electric vehicle in Singapore, much of the high-end and more valuable innovation will stay in the UK.
This industrial ecology requires rethinking everything from market design to support for basic science, from product regulation to innovation centres, from deeper skills in engineering and marketing to rethinking early stage finance.
In short, it means a strategic, mission-driven approach to important economic challenges, like cleaning up transport.
This government’s Industrial Strategy and the support for innovation that accompanies it was a significant change of direction.
The coming years will see if it can work.
Phil New is the chief executive of the Energy Systems Catapult and chair of the EV Energy Taskforce