Guest Blog: Is the auto sector well-positioned for the Zero Emission Vehicle transition?

Regulatory pressures at home and in our major export markets, intense competition from Asia and new start-up marques, a battle to reduce material costs in a world of competition for expensive raw materials – what is at stake for the UK and how can the engineering community ensure ongoing success? Julian Hetherington, Automotive Transformation Director at the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APC) sets out his views.

In over 36 years in the industry, I can confidently say that these few years around the transition to Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) are the most exciting, and at present one of the best opportunities for the UK in decades – but only if we play to our strengths and embrace change.

Industry has developed technical solutions to deliver ZEVs (both battery and hydrogen fuel cell) ahead of regulation – innovation in action – and to a large degree has enabled and accelerated the regulations in many of the global markets. That is a big ‘well done’ to the engineers and forward-thinking strategy directors in OEMs and technology companies around the world with the foresight to commit R&D money ahead of being chased by the regulators. But the next challenge is bigger, and much harder to address – how do we industrialise at pace and scale and concurrently ensure that we do not create any problems for the future?

Materials availability, together with their embedded carbon footprint are the emergent action points for the industry, and again we have an opportunity for engineers to get ahead of regulation through design priorities focused on reducing, reusing, and ultimately making recycling of these materials more efficient. ZEVs use materials that are more expensive and intensive to process than required for ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles – including some with environmental challenges, and as they roll off the production line, they start with a much higher potential carbon footprint that is overhauled quickly if charged by renewable energy.

We are in a privileged position to look at emergent motor and battery pack designs yet to hit the market. These designs are ever more package-efficient, and many batteries are being designed for structural integration with body structures, design for cost-effective manufacture and assembly is on the up, but I see some issues ahead. The more we engineer solutions that combine different materials, glue them in place with high strength epoxies, and embed more and smaller rare earth magnets in complex motor designs, the downside result is that we are making it ever harder to repair ‘in service’ and ultimately much harder to disassemble at end of life, and economically recover these critical materials without effectively shredding back to a ‘lowest common denominator’ of so-called ‘black mass’ for battery waste or chips of a wide range of co-mingled metals from which it is hard and expensive to recover the input materials such as lithium, graphite, plastics, and rare earths.

Just as we engineered solutions to comply with the various iterations of the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive, so we must ultimately find ways to recover and reprocess these important (and in some cases ‘Critical’) materials by designing to allow their recovery and reuse at the highest point in their value cycle. We must think about in-life service: in a battery pack consisting of many thousands of cells – if just one fails do we have to make it impossible to replace anything other than the entire pack? Think of the warranty cost or the effect of shortening the economic life of a vehicle after the warranty has expired, and when we do get to the end of serviceable life, let’s make it easy to recover, minimally reprocess, and reuse these materials that have high impact, and once again, get ahead of regulation by making secondary materials inherently more viable than primary materials.  Despite the considerable ingenuity and efforts of the mining sector to reduce environmental impacts, we can never put stuff back in the ground as it came out.

The UK’s opportunity is to lead the transition to the new paradigm with a clean conscience – and that is not a task for regulators, it is for engineers to address. Let us get it right first time.

Julian Hetherington is Automotive Transformation Director at the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APC)