Revved up for revolution

Despite criticisms from environmental campaigners, the automotive industry is best placed to lead green-tech development, says Giles Hundleby

While the automotive industry has often been criticised by environmental campaigners, it has continually cleaned up its act for regulated exhaust emissions. A modern car emits fewer hydrocarbons while running than its 1970s predecessor would use while stationary and with the engine turned off.

Painting a room in an average family house with a gallon of gloss paint also emits more volatile organic compounds than would result from driving a Toyota Prius for 150,000 miles. Moreover, on a typical warm day in a city such as Los Angeles, the exhaust gases of a vehicle such as a Honda Insight hybrid are likely to be cleaner on average than the surrounding air the engine draws in.

These achievements are the result of advanced electronics and control technologies, and the crucial systems engineering, design and integration skills that have developed them into the type of products whose value and in-service reliability are beyond question. While further challenges remain on vehicle emissions, in particular of CO2, the sheer scale of the achievement to date is impressive.

The imperative to develop clean energy solutions across all industrial sectors to mitigate climate change and protect and increase available energy supply is well understood.

Increasingly, the motivation for change comes from the opportunities for profit from innovations in clean technologies. In some areas the revolution has hardly begun but in others it is well under way, such as in the wind energy segment which, in 2007, installed 8.5GW of generation capacity in Europe alone.

Despite some public backlash in areas such as first-generation biofuels, most engineers remain convinced that the revolution is needed and that its pace needs to quicken. The problem is that there are not enough clean energy engineers to make the revolution happen quickly enough. Why should this be?

In conventional energy relatively few engineers are required per GW of output, and the focus is mostly on a small number of large and centralised power station facilities for which, notwithstanding innovations such as large-scale gas and coal carbon capture and storage, the technologies are highly mature.

The clean energy sector, by contrast, covers a much wider span of technologies, many of which are a long way from maturity. In general, we are looking at devices and systems at much lower power ranges (1kW-10MW) but at much higher volumes. This means we need far more engineers per GW, and we need engineers who are experienced in moving complex and innovative concepts from the research stage, through the product development process and into volume production.

While we have an excellent university system its ability to deliver the multi-disciplinary engineering talent required here and now by the clean energy sector is highly questionable.

To come close to achieving the goals of a clean energy revolution we need to bring a wide range of new energy devices and systems out of the lab and into high-volume product application in the next five years, which means the product development and validation programmes need to be under way or starting in the next two years.

The only option to enable delivery across the range of clean technologies needed is to look to established engineering sectors for sources of engineering talent.

The automotive industry is the one with the best fit by virtue of its size, the profile of engineering activity and the existence of a competitive outsource engineering sector. It is home to perhaps half a million product development engineers with a substantial average experience level. Their experience typically covers design and development to take a product through to production in high volumes at the right cost and with the necessary levels of reliability and robustness for real world use.

The products themselves are complex and involve electrical, mechanical and electronic systems and need to meet a multitude of standards and regulations. They contain power systems and drivelines and cover the range from 1kW to 1MW and above. There are even some obvious synergies between automotive and clean energy, such as gearbox systems for wind turbines, Stirling engines for micro combined heat and power, batteries and flywheel energy storage systems.

The existence of an outsourced engineering sector is the final benefit. To start to access this extension of engineering capability, clean energy companies do not need to set up their recruitment desks in the car parks of the automotive technical centres — although many have already attracted ex-automotive engineers such as the Ricardo alumni, who are now in senior positions in the tidal turbine and wind energy companies, several utilities and a leading key fuel-cell developer.

Engineering service companies such as Ricardo are now realising that the skills we have are highly applicable to the clean energy industries and are proactively searching out companies we can help.

Do I care that a flow of engineers from auto to clean energy might inconvenience the auto industry? In short, no — the engineering profession has done a fantastic job for the auto industry over the past 100 years, enabling the manufacture of unbelievably complex machines that work reliably and efficiently and cost relatively little compared with most other engineered products.

There is plenty of engineering talent available and Ricardo, alongside its more traditional automotive industry clients, is already helping clean tech companies in bringing new and highly innovative products to market.

The challenges of implementing clean energy solutions are many and serious and if automotive engineers in general, and Ricardo in particular, can help overcome them, we all stand to benefit. I, for one, shall not be unhappy to be a part of that revolution.

Giles Hundleby is Ricardo’s director for clean energy