Do we have the appetite to chase the dream...
An advert on TV caught my attention this week, promoting a hybrid family car that could give you up to 75mpg. It's probably grossly unfair of me, but I found that figure vaguely disappointing. A good, small-engined petrol car will get you up into the 50s, and surely a decent diesel will return 60mpg or more. Perhaps I'm being unrealistic, but I somehow expected hybrid vehicles to be offering well over 100mpg, especially when electric vehicles are promising ranges of 200 miles for £5-worth of electrical charge, which in round numbers would compare with a 200mpg conventionally-fuelled car.
Does that indicate that hybrid technology is a blind alley? Or, at best, a stepping stone? The question is, can we build a sustainable car industry around electric cars? Will we ever be able to combine the required technologies with the the required charging infrastructure?
These are all important questions. What's interesting is to see just how big a hub the UK has become as a development centre attempting to answer these questions. For vehicle structures, we have Dorset-based Inrekor, whose director Stewart Morley developed composite sandwich panels that can be used to build extremely lightweight vehicle chassis and structural elements, delivering weight savings of up to 30%. Then we have motor developments from the likes of Oxford Yasa Motors (page 6) which are promising to deliver vastly more efficient powertrains. Battery life is still cited as a limiting factor for electric cars, but quick charging technologies could be just around the corner and the UK is leading the field in fuel cell development.
Call me overly-optimistic, but I sense an opportunity here. After the DeLorean fiasco of the 1970s, you can understand why subsequent governments have been reluctant to put money into UK-owned car companies, although there has been plenty of support for inward investment from overseas automotive manufacturers. But if the UK government is prepared to subsidise the purchase of an electric vehicle, then why not instead put the money up front and subsidise the manufacture of a British electric vehicle? Why not resurrect one of the classic British marques (that hasn't already been purchased by some large group or other), and launch the British car industry anew on a bold new path towards a brave new electric world?
Or are these simply great new British technologies that are destined to go the way of so many other great British inventions - ideas are were developed over here but commercialised by forward thinking companies overseas? Could it be that while we have the creativity to innovate, we simply don't have the appetite to follow through?
Figures estimate that electric vehicle sales could account for more than 1 in 20 car sales by 2014. That could mean over 100,000 electric vehicles a year in the UK alone. Surely for a company with some vision and some backing, that's a market that has to be worth chasing.
Becky Silverton, 14 April 2011
Industrial Technology - NEWS