Matt Boyle: Things are moving at an electrifying pace - and it's about time

Matt Boyle says there are huge opportunities ahead as the world explores the potential of electric vehicles

Beijing may be known for its heavy pollution – but the city and others in China are far ahead of the West in encouraging the use of electric vehicles
Beijing may be known for its heavy pollution – but the city and others in China are far ahead of the West in encouraging the use of electric vehicles

I am all too conscious of the ability of the 24 hour news cycle, the internet, mobile and satellite technology to make people aware of events far and wide to which they would have been oblivious only a few decades ago.

These events include the health impact of pollution, the cost of petroleum and the effects of climate change.

Three positive things this visibility generates are; need, awareness of opportunity and innovation. It is these three elements that are driving, quite literally in some cases, electrification of the carbon based drivetrain of today.

With transport contributing approximately one-third of carbon emissions and power generation around another one-third, it’s not difficult to see how both of these sectors attract a lot of hysteria, analysis and debate.

When addressing transport issues around the world I see that the challenges and solutions differ widely, depending on geography, political will and first-hand experience.

The acute environmental issues in China and other areas in the Far East have galvanized governments. One example would be in China where pollution issues, especially in large cities, abound.

The Chinese, are however, far ahead in adoption of low carbon vehicles. Earlier this month the Chinese government said it would remove six million older polluting vehicles from the road this year, replacing them with lower polluting gas or pure electric cars. In many Chinese cities they operate a vehicle licence lottery system.

A car buyer has to apply, at significant cost, to enter a lottery for a small number of plates each month. In cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou this lottery is bypassed and the licence plate is awarded if the car is electric, a substantial positive incentive.

The desire of Far East governments to reduce the number and type of polluters isn’t limited to passenger cars but includes buses and trucks, although rather than producing pure electric vehicles they are trying to promote hybrid technologies as well.

This is why I believe that the Far East in general and China especially have reached an inflection point.

There are challenges to making decisions like these sustainable and they fall into the three traditional categories of technology, infrastructure and cost.

In other areas like Europe technology, awareness and cost are less of a drawback but economic instability and fiscal austerity are limiting infrastructure improvements.

In the US, the west coast is still the best coast for environmental protection but with the financial and technical success of Tesla, attitudes are beginning to change across the country.

If we look at the problem a little more broadly, the internal combustion engine is used as a power source in many other applications. These range from farming to go karting and from sailing to ice preparation. In all of these areas of course the traditional engineering expertise is mechanical.

I am often asked, why now? What is driving and supporting the move to electrification of internal combustion drivetrains. Why, in this decade, have electric vehicles become possible and realisable?

The answer - the advent of the lithium Ion battery in commercially viable forms. The consequence of this is that the traditional engineering skill set moves from mechanical to electrical as electrification gains acceptance.

So the opportunity and requirement for innovation are therefore evident. In order to exploit the huge opportunities that exist we have to bring new solutions that deal with the infrastructure challenges as well as cost.

In the North East we are building these skills, more slowly than I would like, but we are investing. The North East has a good pedigree in power electronics in Newcastle and Sunderland Universities and with the support of various businesses including Sevcon we have something solid to build upon.

We now need to foster relationships with developers and original equipment manufacturers abroad where the need and substantial opportunities exist.

This does mean that the North East has to engage and compete at senior levels in far flung places and most importantly deliver on its potential. We need to create an awareness that the North East is the place to go for these innovative solutions.

We compete with some very successful countries, regions and companies. In small ways though we can point to progress here over other places.

It does help that Nissan build the Leaf in Sunderland. The Leaf is the highest selling pure electric vehicle in the world.

The work undertaken in Newcastle and Sunderland Universities is world renowned. We, Sevcon, operate on three continents, have development programmes in all three on various applications every one leading to the electrification of internal combustion systems.

The world is changing. The present generation are far more aware of their environmental impact and that is almost certainly good news for electrification and for the innovators who support it.

Matt Boyle is president and chief executive officer of Sevcon.

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