Could Govt’s latest electric car investment lead to new hybrid aircraft?

Posted on 22 Jul 2019 by Jonny Williamson

The government has unveiled a further £80m investment aimed at stimulating the development of next-generation electric vehicles. Could it also help to develop new hybrid aircraft?

Industrial electric motor on the drawing - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
New power electronics, electric machines and drives could aid efforts to reduce global carbon emissions – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The £80m of government funding seeks to ensure that the development of new power electronics, electric machines and drives (PEMD) technologies will be led by industry and academia in the UK.

Specifically, the government wants the UK to be capable of supplying PEMD-related products both here and abroad in an effort to cut global carbon emissions from a range of industries including transport, energy, agriculture and construction.

The alliance between industry and academia will be crucial in achieving such ambitions, and is reportedly supported by more than 130 organisations, collectively offering global reserves in the region of £600bn.

Investment will be available through four key strands, providing opportunities for industries in the UK to move away from fossil fuels and embrace new electric products:

  • ‘Fast Start Fill the Gaps’/Proof of Concept programmes – a project that aims to fill identified gaps in the supply chain for PEMD
  • Industrialisation Centres – aiming for the UK to develop the next generation of PEMD products such as electric vehicles, as well as providing a focal point for the business community
  • High efficiency, high volume supply chains – investing in the UK’s capability to develop the necessary machining tools for new manufacturing techniques
  • Low volume, high value supply chains – aiming to help just-in-time manufacturers to sustain long-term growth

Electric vehicles in the UK 

In 2013, only 3,500 electric cars were registered in the UK. In June 2019, that number had risen to 219,000.

The first all-electric British hypercar from Lotus, the Lotus Evija - image courtesy of Lotus.
The first all-electric British hypercar from Lotus, the Lotus Evija – image courtesy of Lotus.

When it comes to alternatively fuelled vehicles, British buyers have greater choice than ever before with more than 350 models currently available – 44 of them plug-ins, according to the SMMT.

Almost every automotive manufacturer – from global players to small start-ups – has announced a foray in electric cars, with many of them pledging that future models will electric only ( either fully, plug-in or hybrid).

The first all-electric British hypercar from Lotus made its debut in London last week, the Lotus Evija. It’s the company’s first hypercar and first model with an electrified powertrain.

From 2020, all new Jaguar Land Rover vehicles will be electrified. While not going as far as JLR to phase out gasoline-only engines entirely, BMW has announced that it would offer 12 all-electric models and 13 hybrid versions by the year 2025.

RapidE is Aston Martin’s first all-electric model. As such, it forms the vanguard of the manufacturer’s low- and zero-emission vehicle strategy, laid out by its president and CEO, Dr Andy Palmer.

Swedish electric vehicle start-up, Uniti  aiming recently announced plans to establish its pilot production facility not in Sweden but at Silverstone Park in Northamptonshire. According to its CEO, Lewis Horne, “From high-performance Formula 1 cars to alternative energy, British engineers have always had an excellent reputation for innovation.”

Similarly, Singapore-based Vanda Electrics has announced that its 200mph D-1 electric supercar will be developed and built in Britain, following its debut at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show.

Alongside the OEMs, numerous innovation centres have been established to develop and provide the powertrains and batteries required.

The new 100,000-unit capacity production facility in Oxford is expected to support 150 high-skilled jobs – image courtesy of YASA.
YASA’s new 100,000-unit capacity production facility in Oxford is expected to support 150 high-skilled jobs – image courtesy of YASA.

Sunderland’s Hyperdrive Innovation (a developer and manufacturer of lithium-ion battery technology), Oxford’s YASA (a leading electric motor manufacturer), and Oxford University spin-out, Brill Power (a developer of battery control and management technology ), are just three.

Hybrid aircraft

Hybrid-electric aircraft and all-electric aircraft become increasingly popular, leading sales of conventional aircraft decline.

Jet fuel is one of an airline operator’s largest costs – nearly 24% in 2018, according to the International Air Transit Association (IATA). It’s a cost that has risen sharply over the past 18 months and the future looks volatile.

As a result, big money is being spent to successfully commercialise alternatively fuelled aircraft. According to the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), hybrid-electric aircraft could generate up to £4 trillion in revenue by 2050.

It’s a growing trend that presents significant opportunities for the UK, particularly regarding UK export to countries that aren’t large aerospace manufacturing nations.

“If we can move quickly, there is an opportunity for the UK to lead the world in these areas, capturing a segment of the growing global aerospace market,” the ATI says.

British airline easyJet has plans to fly electric passenger jets on some of its routes by 2027, plans which took one step closer to fruition in October 2018 with the announcement of a partnership with US battery-powered electric aircraft start-up, Wright Electric.

Hybrid aircraft - Rolls-Royce is building a high-performance electric aircraft - image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.
Rolls-Royce plans to develop and build its own high-performance, zero-emissions electric aircraft – image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

Rolls-Royce revealed plans earlier this year to develop and build its own zero-emissions plane. The company has expectations of hitting 300mph by 2020 – making it the world’s fastest all-electric plane.

Air passenger numbers are expected to double from today’s levels over the next two decades, with IATA forecasting a 3.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

As passenger volume grows, the cost of traditional fuel continues to rise and society becomes ever-more focused on its carbon footprint, a hybrid-electric aircraft that offers lower emissions, noise and costs becomes increasingly attractive.

Something the development of new power electronics, electric machines and drives (PEMD) technologies play a pivotal role in driving forward.

However, there are significant challenges that make all-electric powered flight for large commercial aircraft an unrealistic prospect, at least in the short-term.

“Major developments in battery technology will be necessary before they are both powerful and light enough to power, and be carried on, aircraft,” according to Paul Everitt, chief executive of ADS, who sat down with The Manufacturer last month.