Steve Rogerson talks to some of the companies preparing for September’s Low Carbon Vehicle Event. Once an essential part of growing up, learning to drive, passing your driving test and going out on the road in either your own or more likely your parents’ car, was a rite of passage for many an adolescent. Today, that is changing. For example, the USA, the flag bearer for car ownership, is seeing a fall in the number of teenage drivers. And that is happening in the UK as well.
“My 14 year old daughter does not even know if she will take the driving test as it will interfere with her connectivity,” said Neil Fulton, Programme Director of the UK’s Transport System Catapult. He was speaking at a gathering in Milton Keynes last month promoting the Low Carbon Vehicle Event due to be help in Millbrook, Bedfordshire, from 6th-7th September.
The connectivity question lies at the heart of this problem. Young people today care more about connectivity than they have ever done, and that is a trend that is going to continue. Whereas once the car was part of how they would keep in contact with their friends, now it gets in the way.
For the automotive industry, this could come as a bit of a shock, but no. Because, as technology has advanced to improve connectivity, much of that same technology is being harnessed by the car makers towards their own vision of autonomous vehicles - vehicles that will probably not be owned by people but will be available to take them where they want to go.
All this is part of a trend called Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), something of which the Uber model is just scratching the surface, but which looks set to change the face of transportation in ways not even imaginable just a few years ago.
However, with any transformation, there are hurdles that need to be overcome, and a big one is a serious shortage of engineers with the skills needed to bring this vision to fruition.
The problem of skills
“There is a huge shortage of skills in electronics and in connected cars,” said Adam Huckstep, Managing Director of Hypermotive. “We are seeing new people coming into the car industry such as Microsoft and Google, but the engineering capability is not keeping up with demand. People are looking for huge numbers of engineers. It is a big problem.”
He said this was leading the automotive industry into trying to recruit people from other sectors such as gaming, power electronics and consumer electronics. “The automotive world is changing,” he said. “It is becoming more like consumer electronics in terms of time scales.”
Hypermotive was founded a little over a year ago to act as a sort of engineering-on-demand service. The Leicestershire-based company has a team of 16 engineers that can be hired to solve specific problems at car makers and tier-one suppliers. “There is a strong demand for our capability,” said Huckstep. “We haven’t got anything unique - we just have all the skills under one roof.”
And while the shortage is serious in the UK, it is worse in other parts of the world, which is why Indian car maker Tata has one of its main R&D centres in the UK - on the campus of the University of Warwick in Coventry.
“We are an integral part of our engineering centre in India,” said David Hudson, who is Head of Propulsion and Innovation at the Coventry technical centre. “Tata sees a different skills base in the UK than there is in India. We have more people with grey hair and our experience in the low carbon space is second to none.”
The centre is also part of Autodrive, one of three projects in the UK developing autonomous vehicles, and the experience gained in this will be sent back to India.
“The next five to ten years will see the deployment of autonomous vehicles,” said Hudson. “India is on a mission to deploy this technology for public transportation. We have to make sure that vehicles that work as a one-off in the UK will work in their thousands in India. It is a very different environment. We are seeing the future in Europe and that will happen in India.” However, the problems with the infrastructure in India mean that building a charging network is a major challenge, and Hudson believes it could be 15 to 20 years before that is in place.
“Thus, we are trying to build vehicles that do not need very high power charging,” he said. Helping build the R&D network in the UK is the Transport Systems Catapult, and Fulton sees this as playing a crucial role in the progress of MaaS.
“We have the experience and vision to work with advanced technology companies to help the technologies of tomorrow to be trialled today,” he said. “We have world class R&D facilities and high calibre universities in the UK and autonomous vehicles are part of that.”
A changing landscape
He said that with taxis and shuttle buses, the major running cost was the driver and so these companies were keen to get the driver out of the vehicle. “Once these ride-share companies own the fleets of autonomous vehicles, they will be able to reduce their fuel costs by putting more people into each car,” he said. “MaaS is all about new ways of selling transport. The traveller will get more choice and better value. Soon, many people will not own a car.”
One aspect of this that everyone agrees with is that the future of autonomous – and all – vehicles will be electric. The decision by the French Government to ban petrol and diesel car sales by 2040 is just the tip of the iceberg. Most car manufacturers are now accepting that electric is the future and some believe that hybrid is a stepping stone towards that rather than an end in itself.
“At the moment, combustion engine platforms are very prolific,” said Robert Dixon, Senior Product Manager at Panasonic. “But we are seeing more evolution on the design side for hybrid and electric vehicle technologies.” However, he said that battery technology was still not where it needed to be. “Batteries are still not dense enough,” he said. “But as the cost comes down, that will continue to improve. We are significantly further forward than we were a decade ago.”
Tim Allen, Director at design and consultancy company Tirius, said: “Batteries have moved on immensely.” He also said that automotive was now taking power electronics technology from the industrial sphere and moving it into vehicles. “A lot is based on industrial,” he said, “but we are now seeing that changing with more dedicated products for automotive that are high power and automotive qualified.”
He said most microprocessors used in automotive were still generic but the sensors and other components were becoming more specialised.
“We are talking about voltage and current combinations that have not previously existed to meet the needs of electric vehicles,” he said. “We are moving from piggy-backing on existing technologies to developing new technologies. We are putting new systems into vehicles and trying to keep the cost down. There is a lot more bespoke activity.”
Sam Clarke, Project Manager at Integral Powertrain, echoed Dixon’s view on the market. “We are seeing massive growth in the electric vehicle and hybrid market,” she said. “We initially started out to make combustion engines more efficient, but now the bulk of our business is in the electric vehicle supply chain.”
One company keen to get into the autonomous world is Claytex. The systems engineering company specialises in developing models for virtual testing, which is seen as a key part of autonomous vehicles to reduce the amount of real world testing to a minimum. Nobody wants to do early tests with real pedestrians to see if the vehicle hits any of them.
“The point is to develop the vehicle and control systems in a joined-up way,” said Sas Harrison, Systems Engineer at Claytex. “We want to model the whole vehicle in an integrated fashion.”
That the automotive industry is on a clear integrated path to both electric and autonomous vehicles is clear as transportation starts its long journey to evolve into mobility-as-a-service. However, it is being hampered by a shortage of electronics engineers and is having to poach talent from other industries. This can fill short-term goals but in the long term collaboration with universities, as is being seen with Autodrive, should help excite the next generation of engineers.