Charged up – Green vehicle sector gets moving

Posted on 7 Oct 2009 by The Manufacturer

Opportunities in low carbon vehicle manufacturing are growing. Despite barriers including the cost of investment and the uncertainty over the range of LCVs and a nationwide charging infrastructure, several government-sponsored initiatives and demand from more carbon-conscious customers are making more companies think about electric power, low weight frames and energy reclaiming systems. Will Stirling reports.

Engineers, designers and manufacturers with appropriate skills cannot ignore the opportunities in low carbon vehicle (LCV) development. The Climate Change Act 2008 has set a target to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. Transport contributes between 21%-24% of the overall domestic UK carbon emissions, and the Government has acknowledged the scale of the problem with the publication of Low Carbon Transport: A Greener Future, a key component of The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, that sets a course towards a low carbon transport system of the future.

Clearly, cars, vans and other commercial vehicles will play a big part in a decarbonised transport system. The Low Carbon Transport report claims that road vehicles will be vastly more fuel efficient by 2022, where it has set fiveyearly carbon budgets out to. The report says: “This will primarily be delivered through advances in the efficiency of the internal combustion engine [and]… new ultra-low emission vehicles will have made their transition onto the mass-market.” The EU’s New Car CO2 Regulation, which government agreed in 2008, is establishing a framework for action by industry to develop lower emitting vehicles, while recognising the diversity and competitiveness of the car market across Europe.

But the challenge of a low carbon vehicle mass market cannot be overstated. It is a race against time, and real, proven technology breakthroughs that help to reduce emissions and conserve energy — such as kinetic energy regenerative systems (KERS), which capture and reuse energy from decelerating vehicles — take time to become commercially viable in a mass market. Apart from numerous mechanical challenges, electric vehicles (EV) and plug-in electric hybrids (PHEV) need a viable charging infrastructure. Several initiatives are researching the viability of different charging infrastructure systems.

One is run by the Energies Technologies Institute (ETI), a company formed from six UK industry members including BP and Rolls-Royce, and the Government, which links projects and partnerships that create reliable clean energy. In July it launched its Plug-in Vehicle Economics and Infrastructure Project, part of a wider plan called Electrification of Transport within UK Test Bed, which has £400m of government funding committed. Part of the Infrastructure Project, the Joined-Cities Plan, will assess how EV and PHEV charging points would work within and between a large city network, to test the feasibility of long distance driving linked by cities. Potential obstacles include ensuring the gauge of charging points made by different suppliers for different regional authorities are compatible for all electric vehicles, regardless of make and size of powertrain.

The long game

While electric vehicles, hybrids and fuel cell technology are not new, the purely technical challenges of bringing these types of powertrain to a mass market are high. EVs are restricted by their range, and larger batteries mean more weight, affecting range and increasing running costs (electric charge). With very few exceptions, the consumer cost of an EV is invariably greater than a petrol or diesel powered vehicle, and can be twice the cost in the case of some commercial vehicles.

David Shemmans, CEO of advanced engineering firm Ricardo, and Richard Parry-Jones, chair of the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team, an steering group launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, both illustrated the timelines for mass market uptake of low carbon vehicles over the next 40 years based on a report commissioned by BIS.

They show that mass market EV technology will not be available in the UK until 2020, and fuel cell vehicle technology will not become mainstream until 2025.

Another hurdle is to accurately predict how consumers will react to an LCV alternative to petrol/diesel (or IC, internal combustion). The ETI is attempting to address this with an extensive evaluation of consumer attitudes and behaviours in buying and using plug-in vehicles and their infrastructure, so global manufacturers are better informed about the UK market. The Technology Strategy Board is linking its own programme of tests to assess the engineering capability of and consumer confidence with LCVs.

“LCVs offer tremendous opportunities for UK innovators in areas such as batteries, supercapacitors, fuel cells, flywheels, electric motors, control systems and the systems engineering to join such technologies together — in all of which the UK has areas of real excellence,” says Adam Chase, director of sustainable energy business consulting firm E4tech. However, there are undoubtedly challenges for any UK company wanting to play a role in LCV innovation. “The absence of big UK vehicle companies presents a challenge to a degree, compared with some other countries. The LCV market is also young, uncertain and, to a large extent, regulation-driven. Furthermore the number of technical options means that companies without an obvious niche may be better off waiting until some options are more fully evaluated before they place their bets,” he adds.

LCVs take the stage

Despite the obstacles, the LCV movement is gaining traction. At the Low Carbon Vehicle Show 2009 at Milbrook in September, hosted by the Centre of Excellence Activities, over 150 exhibitors and 80 demonstrator vehicles displayed their low carbon vehicles, components, research, infrastructure plans and more. Exhibitors ranged from university engineering departments presenting solar powered cars, to small innovative design and manufacturing companies, to the multinational big boys like Nissan, Mitsubishi and BMW, here showing the MINI-E. Smaller firms included Flybrid – makers of a versatile flywheel-based KERS system — MIRA, vehicle engineering specialists working with Jaguar Land Rover and Caparo on the Limo Green low emission XJ variant (see below), and Zytec Automotive, manufacturers of a range of electric powertrains for EV and hybrid vehicles. Several exhibitors were showing technologies that reduce weight to lower emissions, rather than focusing on a low carbon drivetrain.

The following companies are British manufacturers making or developing LCV products in the UK, except for Nissan, which intends to build a new factory for the manufacture of lithium ion car batteries in Sunderland.

Axon Automotive

Less is more where CO2 is concerned, according to manufacturer Axon Automotive, which has developed a car with help from the Government’s Foresight Vehicle Programme and projects at Cranfield University.

The small car maker has created a low emission vehicle that achieves its environmental benefit mainly from its super light construction, using globally patented carbon fibre chassis technology and an efficient 500cc petrol engine which provides 100mpg fuel economy and low CO2 emissions. The composition of the frame and simplicity of the vehicle’s glider (shell) gives it extreme lightness, which reduces fuel consumption, while it is still strong enough to meet the necessary Department for Transport safety standards. The car contains no heavy batteries, it experiences less energy loss on braking or accelerating and achieves 20% less CO2 emissions than comparably-sized internal combustion (IC) cars — it was specifically tested against the VW Blue Motion Polo — and 30% less than the Toyota Prius.

Axon’s aim is quite simple: to manufacture the most fuel-efficient cars in Europe. Company founder Dr Steve Cousins says: “We’ve heard about the affordability of CO2 reduction technologies — you have an option of where you put your money. If you spend less than a certain sum, you can put it into light weighting like we do, and very good performance from a small but very efficient British engine.

The combination of these two give you groundbreaking CO2 reductions, showing you don’t have to be electric to be a low carbon.” Axon is receiving support from the Technology Strategy Board and launched its prototype city car at the Eden Green Car show, Cornwall in 2008. The first vehicle is expected be on the market in 2011.

Stevens Vehicles

Not exhibiting at the LCV Show, Stevens Vehicles is a company that manufactures in the UK and, like Axon, its vehicles are based on a design for low environmental impact that is economically accessible to produce.

The brainchild of automotive industry expert Professor Tony Stevens and son Peter Stevens takes a holistic approach to vehicle design, not only reducing the environmental impact of the automobile during use, through an efficient drivetrain and minimal vehicle mass, but also in its manufacture — 50% reduction in manufacturing pollution compared to a major (international) manufacturer, says Prof Stevens.

Apart from its low environmental impact, the most important aspect of Stevens Vehicles business model is the application of a manufacturing philosophy resulting in a design that allows the vehicle to be produced locally from local materials with minimal manufacturing set-up cost. “Clearly within the motor industry the giants are in trouble because they have to invest too much,” says Stevens Senior. “Even the best in Europe can only bring a new model in for about £500m.

We can have a small city in China making our vehicles for its own population and never need an enormous introductory capital expenditure.”

Jaguar Land Rover

Jaguar Land Rover, alongside Caparo, Lotus Engineering and MIRA, was displaying the Limo Green hybrid, an electric Jaguar XJ variant with onboard petrol generator (Lotus) and plug-in capability for a 30 mile range.

The car is a concept model developed with Technology Strategy Board funding from its first LCV competition, which JLR is considering rolling out as a production model (to be decided in 2010) if and when more expensive parts of its technology come down. If this happens it would take two to three years before seeing the car on the road. “The TSB part-funded this and brought the partners together, without whom it wouldn’t have got off ground,” says Martin Watkinson of MIRA, the engineering firm which co-produced the electric motor. “We all knew each other but it was a bit leftfield for Jaguar mainstream so the route to funding through TSB and the match-making service it provided between the three companies was key.” Watkinson estimates that, were a production model built, 80%-90% of the car would be made in the UK.

The car uses a 145kw, 295lb ft electric motor to power it for up to 30 miles. Once the electric charge runs out, a 1.2 litre petrol unit provides back up power and recharges the battery to allow a combined range of 600 miles. Combined fuel economy is 57mpg, while CO2 emissions are sub 120g/km and its top speed is 112mph.

Liberty Cars

A low emission car option should not be exclusive to drivers of small cars and sports cars, a point emphatically made by Barry Shrier, the American co-founder of Liberty Electric Cars.

Liberty’s business model is the conversion of a limited range of premium branded cars from piston engine to high performance, zero emission electric, similar to the Mercedes/ AMG partnership, where AMG convert factory Mercedes cars for higher performance. “As a business we are leveraging the global brand equity of famous cars to an electric platform,” says Shrier. The company currently fits electric engines to Range Rover models only, but intends to expand the concept to more models. Liberty chose this model because it is “commercially sensible”, as the cost of launching a new car brand in any country is Eu50-Eu100m, says Shrier.

Engines are not retrofitted — customers specify a Liberty from Land Rover dealer showrooms and bare gliders are fitted out with the electric modifications at Liberty’s Newcastle manufacturing facility. “Consumers want green cars,” Shrier says. “Why don’t manufacturers make green cars?” He is convinced top-of-themarket car customers want this choice and are prepared to pay for it. The cars carry a hefty premium over the IC (petrol/diesel) version: if the equivalent spec Range Rover retails for about £70,000, an all-electric one with will set you back about £90,000 at the moment.

Manufacturing opportunities: Shrier is bullish about Liberty’s future. Based on today’s order book and forecasts, “we will create a minimum of 500 new jobs in the next five years for the vehicle programme alone,” he says, implying this figure could be higher if one includes support and marketing jobs.


Nissan hit the low carbon vehicle headlines in July when it announced its intention to extend its factory in Wearside near Sunderland to make batteries for electric cars.

The batteries are destined for the Renault Nissan Alliance and Nissan’s new LEAF electric car, which will be in production in Japan by late-2010. It is almost certain Nissan will build a production facility for the LEAF in Europe, and industry watchers have commented the battery plant puts Sunderland as a front runner location for this facility. While it had no demo vehicle at the LCV2009 Show, Nissan’s circular stand on the outside Steering Pad area was a monument to detailed research into LCVs and the driving behaviour of consumers – its research says that 10% of all vehicles on public roads will be electric by 2020. “Our research shows that driving distance is the main trigger for an electric vehicle,” says Redmer van de Meer, European marketing manager at Nissan. “In order not to rely on a supplier that can’t deliver long range batteries, we’ve made this joint venture with NEC Tokin, two companies which have years of experience in battery technology.” Ninety two per cent of people, according to Nissan’s research, on standard week day trips do not go further than 100 miles, making some electric cars viable for normal usage patterns. But van de Meer stresses that LCV cars cannot compromise the consumer or they will fail. “At the moment they’re comparing this (LEAF) car to any other normal, C segment vehicle in the market.

They don’t want to have the steering wheel in the middle and two seats on the left and the right. You can go crazy with new designs, but people need comparable configuration and performance to what they’re used to.”

Commercial vehicles


Coventry-based Modec imports its battery cells from China but manufactures nearly the entire remainder of the vehicle in the UK.

The vehicle is mainly designed for the distribution sector or the “back-to-base” operational vehicle sector for inner city use and can travel up to 100 miles on one charge. National sales manager Paul O’Dowd is pleased with the vehicles unique selling points. “Our research shows clients picked out the unique entry system, [which also accesses the vehicle box], the unique cab design for good all round visibility and the ability to put different types of proposition on the rear of our chassis, as being very attractive features.” Modec vans are accessed through a sliding door into a rear-cab anteroom, which can benefit when working in very narrow streets and the lack of other access points improves the vehicle’s structural strength.

The company is enjoying success having won contracts with UPS and Fedex for inner city operations. O’Dowd says Modec vehicles are ideal for such companies because “the mileage they cover on a day-to-day basis is relatively low and with the types of driving undertaken, they enjoy the additional benefit of regenerative braking due to the constant stop-start nature of the work.” The company is also developing a new, tipper body rear configuration which is suitable for local authorities’ waste disposal services.

Modec is part of the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demo Programme (see p31) and has entered into a joint venture with US company Navistar who have recently been awarded a grant of $39.2m from the US federal government electric vehicle initiative and plan to convert Modec vehicles to US road regulations.


In April bus manufacturer Optare launched Optare Solo EV, the UK’s first practical, full size (33 seat plus standees), battery powered bus.

The drivetrain is fully zero emission. Before then, Optare — whose core market is midibuses of 20-35 seats suited best for high frequency and rural applications — introduced a hybrid electric bus in 2008, but low weight has been a feature of its products for the last decade. “Our philosophy has always been to build vehicles that are fully integral in design. By virtue of that we have been able to design out a lot of excess weight,” says Glenn Saint, commercial director at Optare. “Our vehicles can be a tonne or more lighter than a comparable vehicle based on a third party chassis. Optare’s aim is to keep the vehicle low in weight but heavy duty, delivering high performance and class-leading fuel efficiency.” While the vehicles are more expensive than comparable diesel-powered buses (a standard diesel Optare Solo is about £100,000, while the full electric Solo is about £180,000), fuel costs are considered to be half those of a similar size diesel bus and the relative simplicity of the propulsion system is said to generate much lower maintenance costs.

The robustness of the main components, allied to Solo’s durable integral construction, is expected to result in a longer lifespan for the Solo EV than a diesel. Savings in annual running costs alone are estimated to be in excess of £8,000 a year compared to a dieselpowered equivalent.

“By introducing these new Eco Drive strategies we can offer operators a choice of technologies to suit their circumstances and deliver even better fuel returns and cleaner emissions,” says Saint.

Smith Electric Vehicles

Like Liberty, Smith Electric Vehicles hails from North East England, the location for Britain’s Low Carbon Economic Area dedicated to ultra-LCVs.

Smith Vehicles is a well-known name in the LCV market, having started operations in 1920, then making EVs for applications like milk floats and airport buggies through the 1960s and 1990s. It is now the world’s biggest manufacturer of commercial EVs. It has three signature models, the 7.5t Newton truck (launched 2006) now selling in the US, the Edison, the world’s first sub-3.5t zero emission van and minibus, and the Ampere, a 2.3t light van. All use either variants of standard Ford Transit or Avia truck chasses, so many spare parts are generic and therefore low cost.

While the ONE North East, the regional development agency, is working on an electric vehicle charging system, Smith’s sales director Kevin Harkin supports this but says it is of no consequence to commercial vehicles. “Ourselves and the likes of Modec operate on a single charge model. This vehicle has a 40KW battery pack, and will do up to 100 miles on one charge. In the general urban operating cycle, it’s difficult to travel more than 50 miles in a city in one shift, so there’s more than enough mileage capacity for that vehicle.

Our other model will be able to extend that by 25%.” The company will open a US manufacturing facility in Kansas by December. Smith Electric Vehicles US Corp qualifies for $10m in grant funding as part of a slew of EV funding from the US Dept of Energy in August. “The UK market is fairly slow, so we are targeting countries embracing electric vehicles, like the US, the Netherlands and Hong Kong” says Smith’s Dan Jenkins.