Engine-makers led down the wrong production line

Labour’s belief in hi-tech green solutions means that the UK runs the risk of squandering expertise that is precious to the nation’s economy, says Max Glaskin.

There is a grave danger that the UK could lose a global lead in an area that is precious to the nation’s economy. We are at serious risk of missing out on a significant trend in engineering and of squandering an expertise that has been acquired over a century. If we’re not careful, we could say goodbye to thousands of jobs and billions of pounds. Put bluntly, we are not developing the right engines.

This country is a major producer of car engines. Last year we made 2.3 million. Ford made a lot of them, along with significant contributions from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and MG Rover. There are high hopes that, by 2005, output will reach 3.5 million.

Engine manufacturing is a cornerstone of the UK automotive industry which is, in turn, our largest source of manufactured exports.

We are making top-quality engines because we have the best development and test facilities in the world. We know how to design and prove them. The trouble is, we could soon find ourselves making the wrong engines.

And it could be the government that is leading us unintentionally down the wrong production line. That’s because it takes seriously one of the driving forces in current vehicle manufacturing – emissions. Nations that have made commitments to the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto agreement must reduce the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere. As Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the government-funded Energy Savings Trust, said: ‘With over 20 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions produced by road transport every year, technological advances are vital.’

So the government has decided that, by 2012, one in 10 new cars will be low carbon producers. This is a laudable goal; the difficult part is achieving it. To stimulate clever thinking, transport secretary Alistair Darling threw down a £10m design challenge in April. Whoever could come up with neat solutions to the objective set would get a fistful of sterling to help turn their ideas into reality. The entrants had to design a five-door car like an Astra or a Focus that does at least 75 mpg.

Now the winners have been announced, though curiously not by Darling. The job was handed over to David Jamieson, who labours under the title of green fuels minister.

Five projects share the booty and the list contains many of the usual, and deserving, suspects – Ricardo, Zytek, Peugeot Citroen, DaimlerChrysler, MIRA, Pi Technology and others. The worrying thing is that four of the five projects involve developing hybrid powertrains.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hybrids. An electric motor and an internal combustion engine both power the wheels, controlled by a microprocessor that aims to minimise emissions without compromising performance. The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids have been on sale for years. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and hybrids like these aren’t going to reduce emissions while making the best use of this country’s expertise.

Take a look at MG Rover’s hybrid project prototype that has won Darling’s handout. It’s a 4×4 MG TF. Instead of using the electric motor specifically to reduce the vehicle’s emissions, the technology simply boosts its performance from 160hp to 200hp. They don’t yet know what the emissions will be because it has still to be tested. Yet the message coming through is that hybrids are only extra power packs to make cars go even faster without troubling the driver’s green conscience.

But there is an alternative that is already finding massive acceptance and will help individuals and nations meet low carbon levels. It’s ridiculously easy and far less complicated than hybrids. The solution is to build lighter cars with smaller engines. Last year Toyota sold 841 Prius 1.5 litre hybrid saloons in Europe. During the same period Smart sold 122,000 two-seaters, each powered by a 660cc engine from DaimlerChrysler. Now Suzuki has announced it will sell the tiny Twin, also powered by a small, 660cc engine.

These models are at the vanguard. Others are developing four-seater saloons light enough to be powered by a 600cc engine. They use less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide. They may not do 0-60 mph in less than six seconds, like the hybrid MG TF, but they don’t pollute the air as much. They don’t need electric motors, heavy batteries or microcontrollers. What they will need is well-made, efficient, small engines – exactly the kind of engines that aren’t made in the UK.

The government should be stimulating the development of a family of engines for small cars. Mayflower is on the case with its variable motion engine, but there is little sign that any other UK engine makers are at all bothered. They should be. Their production lines are at stake.