Plug, play, pace and progress: Interview with Ian Constance on the green automotive industry

This is my second reflection piece this year, and this time we’ve decided to do things a little differently.  Normally I’d have a written article published on the APC website, but we now look to experiment with creating a series of audio podcasts – the first of which is available now. 

If you’d like to listen to this article, press play on the embedded audio below or download it to listen wherever you like. 

Funding announcements and recent developments 

It’s been a busy few months at the Advanced Propulsion Centre, as usual. I’d like to start by highlighting our latest round of collaborative research and development funding, as we’ve just announced two new large-scale late-stage projects with some really interesting tech and collaborators.  

The first is project ZEN (Zero Emission Norton) being led by Norton Motorcycle Company – an iconic British brand backed by TVS Motors, a large Indian motorcycle manufacturer. The business recently set up a new factory in Solihull and is producing bikes again and is now looking to create its first electric motorbike, working with us and other partners to realise that. 

The second is OX Delivers CLEAN (Clean Logistics for Emerging African Nations). This is another fascinating project. It comprises an electric all-terrain delivery truck designed and built in the UK, with UK-based supply chains, to be delivered in developing markets such as Rwanda where mobility is a challenge. 

We’ve announced the funding of 19 feasibility studies through the Automotive Transformation Fund (ATF).  

These are the projects where people come to us with an idea for a piece of technology, a process, or resource that will help with the EV or low-carbon supply chain in the UK for the next generation of vehicles. We help them with relatively small-scale short-term projects that aim to prove that theres a viable opportunity that can be realised, which hopefully encourages them to apply for a more large-scale bid for ATF capital funding. 

Plug and play 

The other bit of exciting news is that we’ve announced our collaboration between Plug and Play and Jaguar Land Rover – to create a brand-new business incubator and accelerator programme. 

This collaboration with Plug and Play also extends to working with our sister organisation Zenzic in the connected autonomous mobility (CAM) space, where we have the CAM scale-up programme looking to help small developers – spinouts and start-ups – accelerate their idea to the point where they can secure investment or bring customers on board. 

Finally, linked to this initiative is the vital Commercialising Connected Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Programme, is supporting the technology to be rolled out into commercial applications to help accelerate its development – but also to demonstrate what can be done with it. 

Why now, and why is the UK a good place to invest in decarbonisation and CAM technologies? 

We’ve always been an automotive nation since the beginning. We’ve always been an innovative country too – we’ve got great engineering through our fantastic academic institutions, our great universities turning out wonderful engineers. It’s long been known that the UK is great at coming up with new ideas and brilliant innovation.  

Whether it’s on the low-carbon and zero-carbon emission development around batteries, motors, hydrogen fuel cell or combustion related technology, we’ve always been good at coming up with those ideas.  

Now is the time that we can actually put some of that to work. Because the market has recently taken off, and it’s critical that we follow up on investment and build those supply chains at scale.  

That’s why the Automotive Transformation Fund is so significant. It’s attracting the investment, co-funding with other partners and with the government to build those battery and motor plants we need. But importantly, we must make sure we follow up with those all-important supply chains feeding those battery, motor, fuel cell plants or whatever it might be. 

What can we do about supply chain resilience?

There’s been great pressure on supply chains throughout the automotive sector – shortage of semiconductors, the chip shortage, a looming lithium supply crunch, and the impact of geopolitical crises impacting on commodity prices – so what can we do about supply chain resilience? 

This is a question that’s taking up a lot of people’s thinking right now. Fundamentally, this is where we have the opportunity now to re-shore a lot of activity. What we see is that suddenly the whole way of assessing a supply chain and how you procure materials and components into building cars is changing. 

In the past, it was all about the cost of labour and transport: transporting the raw materials in and getting the parts out to wherever you’re building the car; the mix between those costs and the supply routes. 

All of a sudden the world is changing, and the provenance of materials is really important. That includes how much carbon is embedded, what’s the environmental footprint of the material going in. The other consideration is where it that material coming from, is it a friendly place where I can rely on my investment and the supply routes being kept open? 

With all the crazy things that are going on in the world, many of us perhaps thought we’d never be in this situation – but here we are, looking now at these kinds of issues which are becoming much more important than the absolute cost.  

Thats not to say that cost is not going to be a factor, for example labour, energy and all the other elements that go into procuring materials will always be important, but suddenly theres a real imperative to look at these other aspects on top. Consumers and governments are asking about these things, which means that theres an opportunity now as we build these supply chains to onshore and bring some of this activity closer to home. 

Looking ahead, what might we be talking about come the Cenex Low Carbon Vehicle and Connected Automated Mobility Show in September? 

Firstly, we’re on a clear trajectory now for zero emissions at the tailpipe for cars and vans by 2035 in the UK, and in much of Europe. So, we must continue to innovate to bring costs down and improve charging times – both on the vehicle and the charging capabilities of the broader infrastructure. 

However, beyond that, we need to start moving towards net zero. How do we make sure that those cars and vans when they’re manufactured aren’t full of unsustainable carbon-related emissions in the upstream supply chains, production and procurement and transport? That’s one. 

The second is heavy duty. A mix of hydrogen and some electrification – clearly battery electric will still play a big part as you start to rise up beyond that 3.5-tonne categorisation that we’re legislated for – but exactly how that’s going to play out and exactly what’s going to come and who’s doing what is still very open. 

That uncertainty is creating a level of concern and delay of decision-making for a lot of manufacturers. We know that the margins are very thin for freight, we know that investments to change products in heavy duty are very high, so people want to know what the answer is before they place their bets, before they make their investment. 

Thirdly, I think the ongoing issues around semiconductors is particularly pertinent. How we get through the shortage and resolve the problem. It’s a very near-term issue for the industry, but the future demand from new connected and autonomous mobility is creating the greater need for chips in the ever-smarter technology going into vehicles. 

It’s a similar picture for electrification, the chips are needed for power electronics as we adapt to the changes in technology as they happen. 

And lastly, as mentioned at the beginning, the provenance of resources like lithium, nickel, cobalt – how do we secure a sustainable supply chain for all the new battery factories being built and not stall the whole rollout of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) if we can’t keep up with the demand for materials going in.  

The clock speed of designing and developing and launching cars, building gigafactories, developing mines and material processing do not match up, so decisions and investments need to be carefully planned and executed in order to meet the demand of the future. 

What is driving this change? 

We are seeing this all around the world. Consumers are getting increasingly exercised about climate change, greenhouse gas reduction, the effect on the planet and the need to do something about it – and do something now.  

There is growing recognition that we can’t just leave everything until 2050 and suddenly turn everything off, it’s not going to work! 

Consumers are very clear with both governments and big corporations: if you don’t provide me with something that is sustainably sourced and ethically produced then I don’t want it. 

People are asking lots of questions, but in response the sector is developing methods of measuring, tracking and tracing those kinds of things. I think that certainly is an emerging trend of which we are going to see a lot more in the next few months and years. 

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