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FEATURE: Change is accelerating in the automotive industry. Are we ready for it?

Tom Austin-Morgan

Is the automotive industry on course to achieve its targets? (Credit: Shutterstock)
Is the automotive industry on course to achieve its targets? (Credit: Shutterstock)

With the UK government ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, in a bid to reach its 2050 net-zero targets, the sales of electric vehicles (EVs) must increase.

Covid massively impacted car sales in the UK. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), published in January, say that 1.65 million new cars were registered in 2021, which is 1% up on 2020 but still -28.7% down on pre-Covid levels.

However, the figures belie the true picture. While petrol car sales were down by -15.7% year-on-year and diesel almost halved (-48.1%), sales of mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) rose by 64.7% and battery, plug-in hybrid and hybrid electric vehicles (BEVs, PHEVs, HEVs) were up by 58.7%. According to these figures, 2021 was the most successful year in history for EV adoption in the UK, with them accounting for 27.5% of the total vehicle market.

“This is testament to the investment made by the industry over the past decade and the inherent attractiveness of the technology,” says Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive. But there are still significant challenges to overcome, from recycling to autonomy. 

Charging infrastructure

On 17 November 2020, the Prime Minister announced £1.3bn funding to accelerate the roll-out of EV charge points across England, £582m in grants for the purchase of zero- or ultra-low emission vehicles, and “nearly £500m” over the next four years on the development and mass production of EV batteries.

Sprint Power is leading on a £9.7m UK government-backed project, including the APC, BMW, BP, AMTE Power, Clas-SiC and Eltrium. Project Celeritas aims to develop ultra-fast charging cells and battery packs for BEVs and fuel-cell HEVs which will reduce charging times by almost 50%. The current best-in-class charging systems take 22 minutes for a 10-80% charge. Sprint Power says its platform will deliver this in 12 minutes.

Recycling batteries

The Recovas project aims to position the UK as a leader in the recycling of EV batteries. The project is run by a consortium funded by the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and led by EMR Group with BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, Autocraft Drivetrain Systems, Connected Energy, the HSE, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre and the University of Warwick. 

EMR’s innovation project manager, Alexander Thompson, explains: “We’re developing not just the infrastructure, but also the safety protocols and industry best practices, to create a system that can then be rolled out or adopted across the UK.”

EMR is developing processes to recover the materials from end-of-life EV batteries. They are first drained of any leftover charge before being manually disassembled into their individual modules. Next they are shredded in an inert atmosphere, then the materials are separated and the 'black mass' (graphite, cobalt, nickel and other high-value rare materials) is stripped out. Finally, the aluminium foils, coppers and plastics are recovered and split down.

Thompson adds: “We’ve put systems and procedures in place to accept, handle and store vehicles safely, and to remove the battery in a safe way, which is something that the vast majority of vehicle breakers in the UK aren’t able or trained to do at this stage.”

Recovas is seeking second-life uses for EV batteries Credit: Connected Energy

Recovas is seeking second-life uses for EV batteries Credit: Connected Energy

In the next year of the project’s remaining two, EMR will establish a multi-million-pound facility for this process. Recovas partners Autocraft and Warwick University are working on a rapid ‘state-of-health’ analysis system so that, when an end-of-life EV is received, recyclers can work out how much usable life is left in the battery. 

Thompson explains: “Currently the process requires a full charge/discharge that takes roughly eight hours. They’re working to bring that down to an hour or less – within minutes potentially – as the project develops.”

‘Second life’ applications are also being investigated by Autocraft, which is looking at how to repair battery packs so they can be reused in other vehicles. 

Connected Energy will be scaling up its Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) which utilise second-life EV batteries to provide grid services from 300kW to approximately 20MW by the project end in 2024. An EV battery is usually considered at the end of its useful life in a vehicle when it falls to 80 to 75% of its original capacity, leaving a substantial remaining capacity which can be used in a BESS. Connected Energy estimates that up to 30% of batteries can be reused in second-life energy storage systems, highlighting the importance of the reuse aspect in the circular economy.

Connected mobility

Zenzic was set up five years ago in response to a call from the Automotive Council for research, test and development of connected and automated automotive technologies.

Mark Cracknell, head of connected and automated mobility at Zenzic, says: “The UK has an opportunity to become a world leader in the testing of these technologies. It’s one thing to build and create them and another to ensure that they’re robust, safe and resilient before they’re put into public life. That’s where Zenzic comes in, by building what we call ‘CAM testbed UK’.”

This is a collection of test facilities, a mix of private proving grounds (UTAC-Culham and Assured CAV at HOBIRA MIRA) and public road runs (Midlands Future Mobility at the University of Warwick and Smart Mobility Living Lab at Greenwich and the Olympic Park).

HORIBA MIRA's Assured CAV test tracks

HORIBA MIRA's Assured CAV test tracks

Cracknell says the biggest topics that Zenzic is working on are cyber security and simulation: “As you connect vehicles at increasing levels of autonomy and complexity, security becomes increasingly important. For the first time, you have the potential for millions of connected devices on the road, that’s IT-scale numbers.

“It’s really important to focus on ensuring how secure vehicles are but, more importantly, how they can be resilient in the face of a threat. We and our partners are looking at how you can articulate what resilience means in vehicles and how you can make a demonstrable, legal case that shows developers have done everything, within reason, to ensure sound resilience in vehicles.”

As for simulation, Cracknell says that, as vehicles operate more autonomously, they will encounter and safely deal with all sorts of scenarios. Simulation allows testing to be done virtually, faster than real time, with unlimited complex scenarios being played out before the vehicle ever gets onto test tracks, let alone public roads.

He adds: “We’re bringing together all the bits of the simulation jigsaw to create a comprehensive process with formal approval because at some point, in the same way that vehicles today are signed off and approved in a process called type approval, you need something equivalent for what are essentially software-defined vehicles and all the things that are included with that, like software updates.”

5G is the key

Both Cracknell and Julian Hetherington, director of automotive transformation at the APC, say that we’re a long way off a completely connected and automated road network and that these technologies will likely begin to take hold, as they already are, in controlled and safe environments such as warehouses and airports. 5G is imperative to the initiative’s success, but it also depends on the data that needs to be shared between vehicles and infrastructure.

Cracknell says: “If we don’t have those things in place by 2025, we’re not going to be at a point where we can scale. The tipping point is 2025.”

Hetherington adds: “I’d question whether we might park full autonomy on public roads until the technology is a little more mature and see whether it really is appropriate to adopt. Connectivity can really benefit drivers, and aid the net-zero ambition, by guiding them to the least-congested routes so they drive more efficiently and get to their destination more quickly. It can also help HGVs reduce emissions by enabling platooning.”

Combustion evolution

In a more overlooked area of decarbonisation, US engine and power generation company Cummins has unveiled a range of fuel-agnostic engines for HGVs that are based on standard engines, meaning they have a high degree of parts commonality. These engines expand upon the company’s existing fuel-cell and battery-electric technologies.

William Lamb, Cummins Europe director of product development, explains: “The cylinder head and fuel injection are changed to make it applicable for other fuels: natural gas and hydrogen.

“By designing it all in at the front end we’re able to avoid any performance loss, which is key for a natural gas or hydrogen engine to perform similarly to a diesel engine.”

Cummins is developing fuel-agnostic engines for HGVs

Cummins is developing fuel-agnostic engines for HGVs

Parts commonality will offer further benefits, including similar engine footprints, diagnostics and service intervals. It will be easier for OEMs to integrate different fuel types across the same chassis, and there will be minimal costs to train technicians and re-tool service locations, resulting in lower total cost of ownership for the end user.

Lamb adds that, although HGVs and other large vehicles may not be electrified by 2030, Cummins’ fuel-agnostic engines will still help reduce emissions: “With efficient engines that can be optimised for different low-carbon fuels, Cummins can deliver substantial CO2 reductions in the short to medium term. Introduction of H2 combustion engines also helps pave the way for longer-term adoption of H2 fuel-cell technology.”

Looking ahead

Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic over the past two years, faltering vehicle sales and supply-chain issues, it seems that most parts of the automotive industry are on track to meet the targets set by the government.

The UK is deemed by most to be ahead of many other countries with its adoption of EVs and carbon emissions targets. But this is disputed by Lamb, who says: “The lack of clarity over UK adoption of wider EU legislation for CO2 (in 2030) and Euro VII makes it very difficult to gauge progress.”

Heatherington says: “The UK is an extremely fast follower of places like Norway and is a million miles ahead of the US, except for a couple of states. We are now at a place where we’re in the ‘virtuous circle’ where consumer demand is growing and is self-accelerating.” 

But Lamb counters: “Customers are willing to explore alternative fuel and powertrain technologies, but the UK does not have infrastructure in place for HGV, BEV or H2, so is not viable in the next few years. I would like to see greater focus on use of renewable drop-in fuels like HVO and B100, both of which are widely available in certain European countries.”

Hetherington continues by saying the time for carrots and sticks is starting to subside: “Consumers get it. It’s now about OEMs getting their product offering in order. 

“The one thing that could be a problem is what the government is going to do about loss of revenues from fuel duty and the road fund licence, which is currently around £40bn. If everybody switches to EVs, where is that going to be made up?

“What the government doesn’t want to do is replace this lost revenue with duties that introduce inequalities. Travel for work – whether by car or public transport – has to be accessible and affordable for all.”


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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