The CEO of the UK’s £1bn Advanced Propulsion Centre, Ian Constance, outlines the challenges for the automotive industry and the exciting opportunities around electric vehicles

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UK Business Angels Association

30 August 2019

Ian ConstanceWith Brexit looming over us, there’s uncertainty across a number of industries, particularly the automotive industry. We spoke to The Advanced Propulsion Centre UK’s (APC) CEO Ian Constance to discuss the challenges that lie ahead, find out what opportunities electric vehicles present and talk about why research and development into new technologies will keep jobs in the UK.

The APC was founded in 2013 and came out of the Automotive Council. Their job is to ensure that the UK remains competitive in the research, development and production of low carbon propulsion technologies.

Explaining the company’s beginnings Ian says:

“The APC was set up with a billion pounds – that’s £500 million of government money matched by £500 million from industry – and our job is to find the best projects that are going to support R&D (research and development) in that low carbon and zero carbon space and use that to leverage a new supply chain in this technology moving forward.”

In June the UK government passed legislation to commit the UK to a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050, an ambitious but necessary target. That creates a number of challenges for many industries but for the automotive industry in particular it’s going to have a huge impact.

“It’s important to recognise that the zero emission challenge really is highly impactful across the industry because what it means is that you have to change the way you develop and make all types of vehicles,” elaborates Ian.

“Suddenly we go into a world where the energy system and the energy networks – where that energy comes from, how it’s made and how it’s delivered to the vehicle – becomes all important.”

It’s not just the energy needed to operate cars that comes under the spotlight but also the way they’re built and used. Ian highlights the additional challenges that lie ahead:

“There’s huge changes going on in the way we design, develop and produce vehicles, and the way that customers behave. The next element of trends and drivers will be connected and autonomous vehicles. You’re already seeing increasing levels of connectivity going into vehicles with modems and 4G and 5G connections of cars. That opens up the possibility for increasing levels of automation together with the artificial intelligence and improved levels of robotisation. When you put that all together – zero emissions, energy networks, improved electronics, lighter weight vehicles, connected autonomous – you get a very, very disruptive environment, where the whole industry is effectively turned on its head.”

“When you put that all together – zero emissions, energy networks, improved electronics, lighter weight vehicles, connected autonomous – you get a very, very disruptive environment, where the whole industry is effectively turned on its head.”

Electric vehicles are seeing an increase in popularity. By the end of July 2019 there were more than 223,000 electric cars registered in the UK, up from 3,500 in 2013. For Ian, it’s an area that’s exciting and viable for the future:

“It’s very clearly coming into focus that short range and light duty vehicles are absolutely on a trajectory to be electrified. I think most people see that. Costs are coming down, the weight’s going down, and the charging times are going down. That makes this whole electrification of vehicles really viable for the future and it’s a pretty exciting area to be in.”

At the moment there are barriers for consumers when it comes to purchasing electric vehicles starting with costs. Ian expands, “The costs of these vehicles are still more to buy than the equivalent internal combustion engine vehicle. We reckon within the next four to five years, in the mid 20s, we’ll see a cross over point where electric vehicles are likely to hit parity with conventional combustion engine vehicles from a cost of purchase point of view.”

APC UK

Electric vehicles are unlikely to be the whole solution though. While today they are suited to short range journeys there isn’t currently a viable option for heavy duty and longer distance travel and Ian points out that addressing those will need some different solutions.

“We are looking at hydrogen fuel cell opportunities. We’re looking at other kinds of net zero carbon fuels for longer range heavy duty vehicles, and we see that as a really important aspect of what we do. We should not get carried away that electric vehicles is the silver bullet that’s going to solve all of our problems.”

APC has committed to creating or safe-guarding 30,000 jobs over the next 10 years and with Brexit looming over the country, there’s much talk about jobs in the automotive industry moving away from the UK. Ian believes the challenge will be in the supply chain rather than research and development:

“While Brexit is a clear major challenge to the automotive industry, one of the things that we see with R&D is that if we’ve got the right people and we’ve got the right skills, people will still come and do that here. Our first priority is ensuring that we make the conditions right; that people still want to invest in research and development in the UK.”

He continues, “We have a thriving ecosystem around batteries and around motors, and we’ve got some really impressive small motor technology companies coming through with really exciting automotive and industrial technology. We’ve got to inject some funding into the system by bringing the right consortium together. Really it’s a question of making sure that we remain lean, efficient, focused on technology and very focused on the future to give that an opportunity to grow and thrive.”

Mobilise the Future: Clean Transport Investment Showcase takes place on 8th October 2019 in London. Register your interest to attend.

To find out more about the APC’s work visit https://www.apcuk.co.uk.

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