Britain is well-placed to lead the way to the electric car future


Paul Drayson explains how the UK’s expertise in high-performance motor sport puts it in an excellent position to lead development on ultra-low carbon electric vehicles, while also dispelling electric vehicles’ ‘dull and worthy’ image

People are beginning to talk about the early signs of economic recovery in the UK and, more than ever, people are looking for the sources of future growth, the areas of business where the UK has the critical mass, the competitive edge and the leadership in technological innovation that will deliver the jobs and economic growth that the country needs as we strive to rebalance our economy after the financial crisis that began in 2007.

Of course the global credit crunch, following as it did the spike in oil prices, exposed global overcapacity in the car industry and ushered in a massive restructuring of the sector. At the same time, growing evidence of man made climate change and ensuing government regulation of vehicle emissions triggered a new level of technological innovation in vehicle powertrains that hasn’t been seen since the invention of the internal combustion engine 125 years ago.

As a result the consumer is now faced with a greater diversity of drivetrain options than ever– petrol or diesel, full or mild hybrids, battery electric or fuel cell.  No-one knows which technology will win out in the long run – and it is fascinating right now to see the major global car companies placing their bets as not even the largest company can afford to cover every technology option.  

The Lola-Drayson electric racer is a test-bed for novel electric vehicle technologies

For industry, the accelerating complexity and uncertainty has been unprecedented, especially for an industry which just 5 years ago was seen as quite predictable with easily forecast consumer demand and regular product life cycles.

So it is tremendous that out of all this turmoil has emerged a reborn UK car industry and a healthy cluster of EV technology leaders.

‘Disruptive technology’ is an over-used label, but when applied to ultra-low carbon vehicles – and by that I mean electric – it is entirely appropriate. It is essential to the future growth and competitiveness of the automotive sector that the UK is a leader in ultra low carbon vehicle technologies and products.

In the short term, the automotive industry will continue to refine their products: reducing vehicle weight and drag, improving engine and transmission performance, pushing ahead with hybrid technology. That will be enough to meet the near term series of tighter European restrictions on CO2 per kilometre emissions.

‘Disruptive technology’ is an over-used label, but when applied to ultra-low carbon vehicles it is entirely appropriate

But the car makers recognise that even if they hit 100 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2020 – equivalent to a small compact model now – internal combustion engines will still waste about 60 per cent of the energy delivered to vehicles from heat loss via the exhaust and cooling systems. These losses are unavoidable whenever we burn fuel.  Electric vehicles– by contrast, are over 90 per cent efficient in taking stored electrical energy and converting it into useful motive power and torque.

Over the past ten years, both the previous and current UK governments have consistently applied policies and incentives to attract investment, encourage R&D and promote sales of zero emission electric vehicles – and this consistency is having an effect. The UK is now a great place to invest in and build an electric  vehicle business.

Of course, ensuring there is enough public infrastructure for plug-in vehicles is a key factor for consumer acceptance and uptake of this technology. The UK government’s Plug-In Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy was published in June 2011 and this is another area where the SMMT is working closely with the Office for Low Emission Vehicles in government.

R&D is central to the achievement of lower emission vehicles, however for it to be effective this R&D must be focused and strategically relevant. To ensure it is, the UK has developed, jointly between industry and government, a set of technology roadmaps for low carbon vehicles, backed by government investment and co-funding via the Technology Strategy Board which coordinates the provision of government funding for strategic R&D in low carbon projects. Among TSB funded projects, the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator Programme has provided important information on real-world testing that will help us to understand customer perceptions and concerns about EVs, as well as new opportunities for product innovation.

Of course, the UK is a world leader in high performance engineering with many of the world’s leading racing teams based in the UK. As motorsport becomes increasingly green – such as in the new FIA Formula E championship for electric vehicles recently announced – the transfer of innovative technology, such as new battery, motor and inverter technology from racetrack to street will accelerate and this is yet another source of electric vehicle drivetrain innovation and a UK competitive advantage.

And as well as being innovative engineers – we have to be innovative marketeers too. That marketing has to make green cars cool and exciting, rather than dull and worthy.

Our tremendous racing heritage helps renew our premium automotive brands like Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, Lotus, and Mini, all constantly renewed by an active motorsport programme and McLaren  – recently launching its new GT hybrid supercar — has managed to build a very successful electronics technology business from its success on track.

We have the brains, the brands and the technology to lead the clean tech automotive revolution

Here in the UK, we have the conditions to lead the electrification of transportation that will take place over the coming years. We have the brains, the brands and the technology to lead the clean tech automotive revolution. We also have a political consensus over the vital importance to the UK of a strong indigenous car industry and the policies to support it, particularly as it responds to the low carbon opportunity. As global economies recover, the strategic importance of this sector to the UK can only increase.

As someone who started his career in the car industry as a young engineer at the Longbridge plant when it employed 22,000 people I am delighted to be able to say that it’s a great time to be an automotive engineer – but these days its electrons that you have to have running through your veins rather than petrol.

Lord Drayson is the owner of Drayson Racing Technology and current president of the UK Motorsport Industry Association

This article is adapted from a speech given at an event organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders