Uncertain road ahead for British car industry

Editor

Depending on who you talk to, visions of the UK’s automotive future vary wildly. For some, hydrogen is where the future lies. Others insist that petrol power will dominate for decades to come. And many believe fervently that, sooner rather than later, the UK’s motorways will hum to the sound of the electric vehicle.

The engineers interviewed in this issue’s cover story (’Unplugged’) fall firmly into the last camp.

For most of us ’road charging’ means one thing: paying to use a road. But if the dreams of the innovators working at the fringes of the electric-car industry are fulfilled, the phrase might one day be more commonly used to describe the method we use to fuel our cars.

Inductive charging, a wireless charging method in which a magnetic field is used to induce an electric current in a receiver, has been understood for hundreds of years and is widely used in devices such as electric toothbrushes. But it’s now being seen by some as a technology that could help trigger the next step in the evolution of the electric vehicle.

“Charge-as-you-drive systems that could free electric cars once and for all from the problems of range anxiety”

Current plans centre on the development of domestic systems that would see inductive pads installed in users’ garages. However, in the longer term, those championing the technology would like to see it trialled in car parks and, ultimately, in the road surface itself – raising the prospect of charge-as-you-drive systems that could free electric cars once and for all from the problems of range anxiety. It sounds great, but there’s one major stumbling block that’s likely to ensure inductive charging hangs onto its curiosity status for a little while longer. Any substantial in-road inductive system would require huge infrastructural upheaval and that’s possibly a sacrifice too far for a technology still in its infancy.

But, while the electric-car industry continues to search for innovative solutions to the limitations of its vehicles, our report (’Burning desire’) is a cheering reminder that engineers can still do plenty to improve the performance of the internal combustion engine.

Talking of his group’s work on the super-efficient, aggressively downsized Ultra Boost project, Leeds University’s Dr Alexey Burluka has a view of the UK’s automotive future that’s a world removed from the pioneers of inductive charging. ’Fully electric vehicles won’t come on board on a wide scale for something like 100 years,’ he said. ’I’m absolutely confident that in 30 years the UK’s roads will still be filled with cars driven by internal combustion.’

Given the high profile of electric and fuel-cell vehicles, it’s sometimes tempting to believe that the combustion engine has reached the end of the road. Projects such as Ultra Boost are a strong reminder that there are still some big efficiency gains to be made and that our automotive future isn’t as set in stone as many believe.