I'm passionate about making a difference in the world. Specifically using my Mechanical Engineering background to assess evidence, solve problems and consider the system. I've worked at the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) for 4.5 years, an organisation founded in 2013 and funded by government and industry to ready the automotive industry for net-zero.
The UK's automotive industry is an important part of our economy today. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Trader's (SMMT) industry facts show that automotive in the UK makes up 10% of UK exports and almost 800,000 jobs. There has been a century of relative stability in the industry, with one predominant powertrain technology. Historically, vehicle manufacturers have not had to worry about where their fuel comes from or how to get fuel to the vehicle. The need to move to net-zero has changed this and brings challenge as well as opportunity to the industry.
In addition to contributing significantly to the UK's economy, there is a strong research, development and innovation capability in UK automotive. This capability allows us to develop solutions to the decarbonisation challenge. The APC has spent the past 10 years funding projects that remove CO2 from the tailpipe. These projects have been able to boast some great successes, for example, transitioning Ford Halewood from a transmission plant to electric drive unit production facility, and developing battery technology now manufactured in the Northeast and being built into UK made Nissan Leafs.
The past 10 years has helped develop a skillset in the UK that can contribute towards decarbonising the system; how vehicles are made, where raw materials come from, and what to do with automotive products at the end of their life. The APC is funding projects that help begin to tackle the circular economy and security of supply challenges. The “Circular and Constant Aluminium” (CirConAl) project run by Constellium aims to create low carbon, high strength alloys from aluminium scrap. Sorting valuable metal that avoids a down-cycling process, preserving value and contributing to a circular economy. The RECOVAS project, led by European Metal Recycling and being supported by OEMs Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, and BMW, is developing the UK’s first commercial scale recycling facility for automotive battery packs.
And there is more to be done.
The next 10 years will accelerate this change. To meet the 2050 net-zero goal, the engineering challenges shift. Solutions need to be found for the hard-to-decarbonise heavy duty on- and off-road sectors and improving the performance of low-cost electric passenger vehicles. The fossil fuel new-vehicle bans coming into effect in the mid-2030s in the UK and EU require a rapid growth of electric vehicle supply chains. Hydrogen propulsion and drop-in net-zero fuels need to be developed for sectors where batteries are infeasible. The next 10 years will be pivotal in bringing technologies to market that consumers and businesses accept, helping create a societal shift towards net zero.
Governments around the world are realising the opportunities this creates. The US has announced the Inflation Reduction Act, which commits $500bn towards clean energy, manufacturing and transportation through tax incentives, grants and loans. The EU has proposed a “Green Deal Industrial Plan” in response. Potential green trade wars aside, it is undeniable that China has dominated supply chains for batteries. If the UK is going to have a strong automotive future, these geopolitical factors need to be considered. Tactical deployment of public and private capital to attract and grow important supply chains in the UK, technology developed that uses fewer critical minerals, and supply agreements with friendly nations will all have a part to play in ensuring that the UK can continue to be an automotive powerhouse in the future.
While net-zero is being sorted out, another seismic change is expected. The way people and goods move around will change. Connectivity and automation of transport will affect how consumers purchase goods and access transport, and businesses have opportunities to automate parts of their logistics and construction activities. Technology development opens opportunities to grow different business models, increase the efficiency of transport, and lead to a better quality of life.
For engineers working in automotive, the next decade will be incredibly interesting. There is a unique opportunity to create technologies that move towards a sustainable future. In the networks we are engaged with at the APC, I am heartened by the capability present in the UK. I can see the opportunities to both move towards net zero and retain an industry that contributes so much to the UK’s economy.
Dan Fung, Head of Strategy and Planning at the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC)
This is the first in a new series of guest blogs from engineers at the Advanced Propulsion Centre, the UK organisation that facilitates funding to low carbon powertrain research and development projects.