The global electric vehicle market, estimated to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2025*, is generating a proliferation of competing technologies, but in such a high stakes environment, developing the perfect product may not be enough to guarantee success…
This week we found ourselves at the epicentre of arguably the most disruptive technology story of our time: the race to power the world’s electric vehicles.
And where did this seismic event take place?
To be more precise, The Future of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Show at the Ricoh Arena, co-headlining with The Battery Technology Show, a double bill packed with speakers and exhibitors from homegrown start-ups, specialist SMEs and global giants.
This year’s show took place days after the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who developed the lithium-Ion battery, based on thinking that partly originated at Oxford University in the 1970s. As with many world-class British ideas, it took an overseas company to exploit its commercial potential – in this case, Sony. Today, lithium-Ion batteries feature in everything from smartphones to electric cars and many people regard it as a Sony invention – a salutary lesson in the importance of retaining control of your own ideas.
There was no shortage of ground-breaking thinking on display at this week’s conference and we’ve highlighted the five areas we found most fascinating.
Electrification is enabling manufacturers to create truly global vehicles. Previously barriers such as emissions legislation have prevented vehicles from entering markets such as the United States and Europe. In commercial transport, a whole new range of electric vans are appearing on the world stage, ready to shake up the established order.
Electric vehicles are making engineers rethink everything. Optimising vehicle design for EVs including the all-important reduction in weight, has triggered a new wave of innovation in product design. Johan Vanhuyse, Research Engineer at Siemens explained how the company is using generative engineering to fundamentally reappraise areas such as the powertrain by employing powerful new analytical techniques using machine learning.
New technologies are surging ahead but the UK’s power infrastructure is not. A recurring theme at the conference was uncertainty over the ability of the UK’s existing and future electricity infrastructure to cope with EV adoption – specifically the last mile provision. The question of who will fund the additional sub-stations and connections seems yet to be resolved and the industry needs reassurance on many levels. A presentation by Hugh Sutherland, Head of Technology at ZapGo showed one potential solution to support the Grid using revolutionary Carbon-Ion battery technology.
The UK is a bona fide world-leader in battery and hydrogen cell technology. The government-backed Faraday Institute has helped galvanize Britain’s battery innovators. As well as the pioneering thinking from ZapGo, we also saw how Hypermotive based in Leicestershire is adapting hydrogen cell technology for a new generation of electric vehicles, from forklift trucks to ferries.
The UK doesn’t need to be totally reliant on overseas gigafactories and lithium imports When you think of battery gigafactories you probably think of vast, gleaming structures in the Nevada desert, yet the UK has its own cell producer, AMTE Power with plans in place to develop the UK’s first gigafactory to seriously ramp up battery cell production. Lithium is widely seen as the irreplaceable element of the electric era and the UK may soon be the first place in Europe where it is commercially sourced, thanks to the activities of Cornish Lithium.
So is the UK ready to take on the world?
Clearly there are many UK-based companies at the forefront of vehicle electrification. But the competition globally is fierce and the scale of companies in countries like China, the US and South Korea means that our businesses need to work very hard to avoid being drowned out.
If there was one thing missing in Coventry, it was any talk about translating ideas into commercially viable brands. This is perhaps unsurprising as it was a largely a gathering of technical minds – yet would this have been the case if the conference had taken place in California? If we can learn anything from the giants of Silicon Valley it’s that the most successful technologies achieve success on the back of compelling brands – such as Apple’s sleek sophistication or Tesla’s all-conquering vision of sustainable innovation.
It’s a big leap for start-ups to become recognisable brands, but it’s an absolute prerequisite for success.
Being able to translate a ground-breaking idea into a unique and differentiating brand narrative is a key ingredient in attracting investors and customers.
Having seen the richness of ideas on display, it would be a travesty if the companies behind them fail to capitalise on the commercial potential of their innovations – much like their Nobel-prize winning forerunners did 40 years ago.
*Personal Electric Vehicle Cars: Market Shares, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2019 to 2025 report from Wintergreen Research