Once the birthplace of the industrial revolution, today the West Midlands is shaping the next generation of transport solutions as the UK’s first Future Mobility Zone. The region is drawing on its established manufacturing heritage and world-class innovation strengths to accelerate the transition to low carbon transport. However, in order for the UK to carve out a global role as a leader in this field, it’s vital that the government supports these capabilities with more funding and carefully considered policies.
The transport sector’s journey to a low carbon future presents a unique opportunity for the West Midlands to take a leading global position at the intersect between technology and manufacturing. With a 2030 deadline looming for manufacturers to phase out petrol and diesel cars, the West Midlands’ automotive sector is proactively helping the industry to find solutions to the electrification challenge.
The region is the UK’s electrification heartland, home to the greatest concentration of battery tech and electric engines businesses in the UK and boasts significant strengths in advancing battery technology at pace. This includes the Coventry-based £130m UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) and outline planning permission for a new Gigafactory, located at Coventry Airport, which is supporting the evolution to an electrified future. Part of the Faraday Battery Challenge, the UKBIC is a government programme to fast track the development of cost-effective, high performance, durable, safe, low weight and recyclable batteries.
West Midlands universities, notably Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick, are leading R&D into cheaper and more sustainable cell/battery technology. WMG has world-leading expertise in battery technology, including cell engineering and demonstrating scalability to full-sized cell, including developing electrode mixtures, deposition processes and cell formats.
The region’s R&D strengths have a vital role to play in restoring the UK’s economic position and are leading to considerable investment by both new and existing market entrants. For example, Jaguar Land Rover has stated that the Jaguar brand will be all-electric by 2025, and that it plans to spend around £2.5bn a year on new technology as part of its electrification strategy.
The West Midlands is also leading on a number of low carbon projects with the potential to transform the future of UK rail services. Many leading rail businesses are engaging with the region’s specialist R&D facilities, dedicated to developing net zero technologies. These include the University of Birmingham’s Centre of Excellence in Rail Decarbonisation, the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), which is leading critical applied research in key areas of digitalisation and decarbonisation in rail, and the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC) in Dudley.
One notable low carbon project hailing from the region is Coventry Very Light Rail (CVLR) – the UK’s very first light rail line. Backed by R&D from the University of Warwick and the VLRNIC, this initiative will make light rail as affordable and environmentally friendly as possible, designed to sit just 30cm inside the road surface. With a potential to reduce the cost of each kilometre of track by tens of millions of pounds, it’s also a cost-effective solution for smaller cities, such as Coventry.
HydroFLEX - the UK’s first hydrogen-ready passenger train - is another low carbon rail development with the potential to encourage a modal shift from road transport to rail. A collaboration between Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham, HydroFLEX was showcased at COP26 in Glasgow and can operate under electric, battery and hydrogen power, making it the world’s first ‘tri-mode’ train.
In the aerospace sector, Coventry also made headlines as the first location of the Urban Air-Port regional trials last year, a development that the operator described as “the starting gun for a new age of transport”.
It’s clear that the West Midlands has the potential to become a leading international hub for industrial decarbonisation in mobility. However, in order to make the most of this economic opportunity, it’s essential that these regional strengths are fully recognised, along with the key role they can play in restoring the UK’s global competitiveness. As part of this process, there is an urgent need for a UK industrial strategy and clear vision for tackling our age-old productivity problem.
The West Midlands has all the tools required to lead a global evolution in low carbon transport, however, a switch in mindset will be required to fully realise this opportunity. With a clear industrial strategy and a strong focus on the region’s strengths in emerging green transport technologies, the UK can achieve regionally balanced growth while boosting its economy.
Neil Rami is CEO of the West Midlands Growth Company