The challenges of climate change are clearer than ever before, and the race for 'net zero' is speeding up – but efforts will only succeed if living standards are maintained. "Society needs educated and skilled engineers like never before," says David Nowell from Imperial College London.
By 2030, all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans are set to be banned from sale in the UK. Neighbouring countries, including Germany and Denmark, have also adopted similar goals. But there’s some considerable doubt over whether the UK’s ambitions are attainable. In May 2021, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the 2030 target could be missed without urgent action. MPs claimed that electric vehicles are still too expensive, and there are too few available charging stations.
Prices of zero-emission vehicles will naturally fall with economies of scale, which will only develop if carmakers introduce greater numbers of electric models to market. This is where engineers come in. They must design, test and produce cars that consumers want to drive, and that function in much the same way as the combustion-engine vehicles they’re accustomed to. As the global economy transitions to net zero, innovation is needed to take the carbon out of modern life while maintaining living standards.
“Society needs educated and skilled engineers like never before,” says David Nowell, professor of machine dynamics at Imperial College London. “The challenge that we’re facing is to stop using fossil fuels, which we’ve been dependent on for at least the past 200 years, over the space of 20 years or so. People aren’t going to accept it if their electricity goes off, or they can’t have the level of personal mobility that they’re used to. We have to find a way of providing these things in a sustainable manner.”
Creativity called for
To reach net zero, engineers will need to display a combination of technical know-how and creative thinking – with the latter being more of an attribute than a measurable skill. The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Skills for Net Zero and a Green Recovery report found that just 7% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy felt they had the skills to achieve it. Employers surveyed by the institution cited innovative thinking, management strategic skills and agility skills as those most needed to realise their sustainable ambitions.
If electric vehicles or low-carbon power come at a significant cost to consumers, there’s a chance net-zero policies could become politically unpopular. Smart, cost-effective engineering could make all the difference in meeting climate targets. “If things cost 5 or 10% extra, and they’re sustainable, I think you’d be able to sell that to the electorate,” says Nowell. “If you’re telling people a car is going to cost three times the normal amount, you’re not going to sell that to the electorate. It is only the engineers that can square that circle for government.”
Case study: Imisi Joseph, Jaguar Land Rover
Imisi Joseph, a software verification engineer at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), began learning the Matlab programming language during her BEng in electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College London. After completing an MSc in energy and power engineering at Warwick University, she joined JLR’s graduate scheme, where she undertook placements across different divisions of the business. During her time with the Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems team, she picked up Python, which she still uses in her current role.
She says: “I use Python to automate some of our tests and do some data analysis. That’s where I improved my skills. I do a bit of software verification on the cars, just making sure the software works. But I also use code in the background to improve how we analyse our tests. It means that, once we’ve done the testing, we can automate all of the data analysis afterwards.”
She urges other engineers to learn to code, as knowing certain programming languages helps them better analyse data and understand vehicle performance. “If customer data was anonymised, we could anticipate problems with our features before they happen. We can improve our warranty and quality,” she says.
Joseph’s current role is in JLR’s powertrain section, under hybrid-electric vehicles. She first took an interest in electric mobility during a year-long placement at JLR after her undergraduate degree, where she worked on the battery-storage system for Jaguar’s first EV. “Every car manufacturer is going to have to electrify, and we’ll have to understand how to make an electrified vehicle work just as well as a petrol one, because we want to maintain the brand,” she says.
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