It is one of the great challenges of our time, bound up in our ambition as a nation to become carbon neutral by 2050. For the UK manufacturing sector, of which automotive is such a key part, failure is surely not an option. But neither is success guaranteed.
We asked experts from some of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s technology centres for their opinions.
Professor David Greenwood, Head of the Advanced Propulsion Systems team, WMG at the University of Warwick:
It is technically achievable to electrify passenger cars by 2035. But it’s going to need a massive amount of investment from three different industrial groupings to get there.
First, automotive manufacturers will need to spend a huge amount of money on product development, and be prepared to write-off the investment they’ve made in their long-term platforms.
Secondly, the battery industry will have to dramatically increase its manufacturing volumes because, as it stands, car companies are either having to halt production or limit supply because they can’t get enough batteries into their plants. Changing that will require investment across the entire battery supply chain.
Thirdly, charging infrastructure will have to move very quickly to provide an environment in which consumers will be happy to make the switch from petrol to electric. One challenge is that the number of charging stations on motorways and in cities will need to increase. These will require huge amounts of power — megawatts of electrical supply.
The good news is that battery technology is improving and its price is coming down. And as the charging network gets better and batteries are able to charge faster, we won’t need to put big, expensive batteries into cars in five or 10 years’ time.
However, electrification of heavy-duty transport will be difficult. Continuant electrification from overhead cables and pantograph-type technology would be cheaper than inductive charging, easier to maintain and more energy efficient. Failing that, the most likely contender is hydrogen fuel cells for trucks.
Archie MacPherson, Chief Executive, WMG Centre High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult:
The 2035 electrification date is bold, and I haven’t yet seen the plan detailing how we’re going to get there. Hitting that target will require a lot of investment in infrastructure, for instance; so we have to be realistic, because the transition to electric will be gradual.
HVM Catapult is helping the UK accelerate towards zero emissions by ensuring manufacturers can address the gap between technology concept and commercialisation. Our seven centres are working together to support business, and provide a way for companies to accelerate and de-risk innovation so they can get products to market that will meet the needs of tomorrow.
UK manufacturers that want to join the electric revolution have to first identify their core competencies. Their business models won’t change overnight, but they have to look at what they do and ask: ‘How can our capabilities help produce the electric vehicles of tomorrow?’
We’ve held a number of Ready for Electrification events for manufacturers who are interested in supplying the electric vehicle sector, or who already are. It doesn’t matter if they don’t make batteries, motors or power electronics, because tomorrow’s EV industry will still need indigenous manufacturing assembly capabilities such as welding, joining and fabricating.
So, manufacturers have to think outside the box — and they have to engage with OEMs, be more competitive, better at process control, deployment of automation and meeting OEM demand. Equally, we need OEMs to look at how a competitive supply chain can be created here in the UK.
Philippa Oldham, Head of National Network Programmes, Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC):
I’m optimistic that we can deliver electrification in the UK by 2035 — although, for me, I’m more focused on how we deliver it. One of the challenges we face is prioritising investment in this area.
For example, the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and programmes such as the Faraday Battery Challenge are helping to ensure the UK becomes a world leader in the design, development and manufacture of electric batteries for the automotive sector.
We also need more collaboration, because it adds real value to organisations. For example, at the APC, we’re seeing OEMs learning how to accelerate and adapt their prototyping methodologies by talking to SMEs, who are traditionally more agile and quicker at delivering solutions.
Joined up thinking is also needed cross-sector. For example, the APC brought together the automotive industry and the chemicals industry, who previously hadn’t really engaged with each other, to work out how to reduce the cost of battery production.
We’ve produced a report which showed that the UK chemical industry is in a strong position to capitalise on the rapidly growing market for Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries in the UK and Europe; and that there’s a £4.8bn a year supply chain opportunity by 2030 for UK chemical and material companies.
We also need to transfer skills. In the UK, we have thousands of engineers who are well-versed in engine technology and manufacture. Now we need to put their knowledge into developing new technologies for the EV market.
And on the possibility of electrifying air travel, Richard Oldfield, Chief Executive, National Composites Centre, High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult:
In aerospace, electrification is just not possible by 2035. The technology is not mature enough, particularly for long-haul flights, where we’re looking at 2050 onwards.
There is an opportunity to electrify very short range aircraft — although 2035 is still an aggressive target to meet. We are seeing electrification of lightweight aircraft now, but current battery solutions make these extremely range and payload limited.
However, short-haul planes comprise around 80% of all flights, so solving that problem would have a dramatic effect on emissions. I think a transition will be underway by 2035, where a first wave of electrically powered aeroplanes will be developed and enter into service.
Of course, airlines are reliant on manufacturers to design alternative propulsion methods for the next generation of aircraft. Until these materialise, airlines can do a lot to reduce emissions for long-haul flights by using sustainable fuels and improving operations, such as not burning fuel on the ground and ensuring optimum trajectory management so that aircraft aren’t stacking.
Across the HVM Catapult’s centres, we’re working on a whole range of enabling technologies. Our focus at the National Composites Centre is on light-weighting, from battery casings, hydrogen storage, light-weighting of aircraft and different energy solutions, particularly offshore renewables.
One plus is that aerospace isn’t like the automotive sector when it comes to the end user. That is, car buyers will need to make a mindset shift to switch to electric — but that won’t be the case with air passengers who would positively opt to fly electric if they could.
*All images courtesy of Depositphotos