Plugged in to the automotive sectorThe UK automotive industry is leading the way in the development of low carbon vehicle technologies, investing heavily in new fuels and electric hybrid systems. In 2009, the UK launched the world's largest electric car trial, providing a forum for testing not only the vehicles but also the necessary infrastructure. And when looking at the future development of electric vehicles, it should be no surprise that the North East of England occupies a prominent position.
The industrial heritage of the area in the fields of transport and electricity is outstanding, with iconic engineers such as George Stephenson, Joseph Swan, William Armstrong and Charles Parsons. The North East is now at the centre of the electric vehicle manufacturing industry in the UK with a vision to become a world leader in research, development and production for the industry. The region brings together businesses, colleges and universities to generate ideas, which will help create the technology of the future. On the research front, Sunderland, Durham and Newcastle Universities have all established research facilities and specialist courses.
Gateshead College also has a £5.5 million Skills Academy that includes a facility for training on electric vehicles. While on the production side, not only do we have Nissan's Sunderland plant beginning the manufacture of the pure-electric Nissan LEAF in 2013 with electric vehicle batteries already being assembled, but we also have other ground breaking companies in the field such as Sevcon, Smiths Electric Vehicles, the Avid Group and Hyperdrive Innovation working within the sector.
UKTI's Chief Executive Officer Nick Baird was given the chance to test drive a Nissan Leaf during a recent visit and was impressed by how quiet it was and its acceleration capabilities. The company is now also supplying LEAF cars as taxis in a trial in New York.
Meanwhile, back home, with the region having the largest number of electric vehicles per head of population, we also have the most comprehensive electric vehicle charging point infrastructure in the UK. And recent research, led by Newcastle University, claims this is enough to make electric vehicles a "viable transport option" with the obvious benefits of reducing pollution.
Although the battery life and range of the current vehicles is increasing, further research in this field is also being carried out into electric vehicles being run through hydrogen powered fuel cells. These electric vehicles run on hydrogen and oxygen, which an onboard fuel cell stack converts, via a chemical reaction, into electricity. In simple terms, this version of the electric car offers the same performance and environmental benefits of battery-powered vehicles, and in common with a conventional car, it can be refueled on the move.
It is envisaged that the automotive sector and its related supply chain could soon be worth close to £1 billion in the North East, with access to further opportunities across the UK. In addition to this domestic market, the sector offers huge potential for both existing and new exporters in both the underlying technologies and supply chain opportunities.
The automotive sector as a whole is worth more than £10 billion a year to the UK, which is home to some of the most productive vehicle plants in the world. More than one million cars and commercial vehicles and more than two million engines a year are produced in the UK and the sector represents 11% of all UK manufactured exports.
More than 135,000 people are employed directly in manufacturing and around 140,000 people in indirect manufacturing with as many as 500,000 employed in the wider motor trade. Vehicles produced in the UK are shipped to more than 100 countries worldwide and Nissan, in Sunderland and Toyota, in Derbyshire are two of the most productive plants in Europe.
The North East is also at the forefront of a new initiative to give a second lease of life to old electric car batteries, by using them for energy storage in homes and businesses. It could double the lifespan of car batteries while "transforming the value chain" of the emerging industry.
So once again the North East, and the UK, are set to be the pioneers of the future.
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