Paul Nieuwenhuis Co-director, Centre for Automotive Industry Research, Cardiff University

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing ‘Chief Engineering Adviser’?

I cannot see a specific advantage to the automotive sector; although this sector may be helped by the new dedicated committee announced by Lord Mandelson a couple of weeks ago and chaired by Richard Parry Jones.

What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?

The car industry is going through a phase where high investments in novel technologies are needed to meet the carbon reduction and sustainability agendas. All this in a recession, so some help from government in those areas – which may not pay back for a number of years – would be very useful. Also it is important to note that in many cases, the main challenge is not so much the technology, as bringing the technology to market; The ‘softer’ issues of business, consumer psychology, incentives, appropriate policies, etc. These areas are cheaper to fund, but very important to include at this stage.

Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?

CO2-based company car taxation has been very successful in reducing the carbon emissions of the UK vehicle parc and giving car makers the market pull for new technologies. Scrappage incentives have been popular with the industry but may come back to haunt it when they stop. Their environmental credentials are also doubtful.

Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to bolster them?

All sectors are suffering from the recession, but we have to make sure that those elements involved in potentially delivering the low carbon vehicle technologies needed over the next 10-20 years come out at the other end. Some help may be needed for that. This includes elements of the existing car makers, the contract design-engineering sector and parts of the motorsport industry.

From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?

Difficult to say at this stage. All parties understand the issues at some level, but all recognise the financial constraints they will be under; to what extent they will prioritise low carbon vehicle technologies is hard to predict.

Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?

Anything where we think UK PLC can gain an advantage naturally tends towards a UK bias, although in practice this can also be delivered in more EU-level projects. There is also a case to be made for the importance of an EU competitive advantage over other major economic areas such as North America and Asia and in low carbon vehicle technologies we have a good chance to achieve this.

What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the short and medium terms?

Low carbon vehicles, which includes enhanced internal combustion, hybrid and battery electric vehicles. Weight reduction is also an important area where UK firms have considerable expertise. Although this naturally seems to lead to small cars small profits, the UK has also been very good at leveraging brand values to achieve premium pricing for small cars; BMW’s MINI springs to mind. The UK has a number of attractive brands that could be used to boost margins on smaller cars thereby recovering some of the additional investments in new technologies. This again highlights the importance of looking beyond engineering to these softer issues needed to deliver the engineering to market.

What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term (ie, with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play a role here?

The typical planning horizon of the car industry is one product cycle, which means that going much beyond the 5 year horizon and you move off the radar; it is precisely here that government and collaborative projects have a role to play to push the industry in the right direction for ensuring future competitiveness.

What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?

Everybody agrees there is a shortage of engineers. It is clear that some of the more glamorous engineering environments the UK can offer (e.g. motor sport) are attractive to students. If we can make low carbon technologies equally attractive (e.g. Gordon Murray has moved this way by going from motor sport to his T25/27 urban car) we can attract people in. Engineers like a challenge and this new sustainability agenda provides plenty of challenges and can be built on the solid foundation of existing UK expertise.