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Paving the way for a cleaner, greener solution – meet The Proving Factory

Robert Last, Director of The Proving Factory, discusses the opportunities that the current political, economic and environmental landscapes offer low-carbon vehicle technology developers and OEMs

Drivers around the world are seeing a reduction in the price of fuel at the pump as the recent major decline in the crude oil price feeds through the supply chain. But while drivers are rejoicing, the electric vehicle industry is getting understandably nervous.

Ian Robertson, BMW board member, admitted in a recent interview with CAR magazine that electric cars such as the BMW i3 will become a harder sell if low fuel prices continue to erode the attractiveness of EV running costs. However, the good news for the EV market and all of those involved in the development of more environmentally friendly technologies is that this trend is unlikely to last. The currently low oil prices are not sustainable, and in the long term pump prices will continue
to rise.

According to EU data, cars are responsible for 12% of EU CO2 emissions and there is little evidence of a wholesale move to alternative modes of transport. In fact, the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) predicts that vehicle production in the EU will continue to increase in the foreseeable future. Current European legislation requires car manufacturers to achieve fleet average CO2 emissions of just 95g/km by 2021; however, that is likely to become even more stringent with proposed reductions to around 70g/km, potentially as early as 2025. For manufacturers, the pressure is on.

Bladon Jets micro gas turbineAs well as EU regulations, fuel efficiency will be driven by a combination of economics, local authority requirements and consumer desire. One example is the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) proposed by London Mayor Boris Johnson. The public consultation on the initiative, which has just closed, was driven by ambitions to reduce CO2 and air pollutant emissions from road transport and to stimulate the low-emission vehicle market, with suggested ideas including introducing a vehicle emissions charging scheme in central London, alongside proposals for buses and revised taxi and private hire licensing requirements. Air pollution is also an issue in a number of other cities and measures to reduce pollutant emissions to levels required by the European Ambient Air Quality Directive will place restrictions on vehicles entering a ULEZ or one of the Low Emissions Zones (LEZ) likely to appear in the not-too-distant future. Innovation will be the key ingredient that will enable OEMs to meet the challenges they face.

And while public attitudes towards electric vehicles in particular are very varied, sales of battery EVs and plug-ins grew markedly in 2014. Alternative powertrain technologies are welcome – and they’re needed now.

While the problem has been identified, it’s not clear cut and there is no one-size-fits-all solution; different technologies are required for different applications. An example is differing duty cycles: cars designed to be driven 100 miles (160km) at motorway speeds have different requirements to buses destined for start-stop operations in city centres. This is what initiatives such as The Proving Factory have recognised. No one technology will win. There is no panacea; rather a whole host of technologies are needed, offering ample opportunity to technology developers to contribute to the solution.

The Proving Factory was launched in February 2013 with an investment of £22m (US$33.5m), supported by £6.5m of the UK Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) grant funding. The Proving Factory will enable low-carbon vehicle technologies to be produced cost effectively in low volumes – up to a 90% price reduction compared with ‘proof of concept’ design – reducing the initial vehicle manufacturer investment required to adopt new solutions in future model programmes. Over the last two years, the project has developed into a business, with the creation of over 50 highly-skilled jobs and the development of assembly and component manufacturing factories to produce the new technologies. Production of the first technologies will begin this year.

For the technology developers, which are usually independent inventors designing one-off prototypes, The Proving Factory can turn their technologies into products, then make them for a vehicle manufacturer (OEM) application. For the OEM, The Proving Factory can take their orders, providing proving volumes of the innovative, low-carbon technologies they need to succeed in meeting emissions targets. For the UK Government, a major supporter, The Proving Factory is a national asset, aligned to the aims of the country’s Automotive Industrial Strategy, the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), the Automotive Investment Organisation (AIO) and Automotive Council and a very successful example of growth and jobs supported by AMSCI funding.

The technology developers with which The Proving Factory is currently working are a great example of the range of innovations that are needed across the market:

  • By shrinking a gas turbine engine into a light and compact package, Bladon Jets has opened up a new generation of range extenders for hybrid vehicles.
  • Electronica has designed a novel implementation of coils into its electric propulsion generators which allows it to change the performance characteristics. For electric vehicles this means higher torque without drawing high current from batteries, increased drive range and higher acceleration.
  • Magnomatics’ MAGSPLIT power split device can create split hybrid systems which are 3-5% more fuel efficient than current rivals.
  • Multi-speed gearboxes help electric vehicles to operate within their most efficient range, and Evolute Drives focuses on the development of such transmission systems.

OEMs need low-carbon technology solutions to meet EU and UK targets and the field is wide open for either radical technologies that can reduce fuel consumption directly, or ones which replace those currently available but at lower cost, weight and volume. The Proving Factory provides the vital link between the technology developers with great ideas and the OEMs, turning ideas into products and then building the relationships that will get these products into service. By working with a variety of technology developers, The Proving Factory is developing a whole suite of low-carbon technologies that will meet the demands of the OEMs.

Robert Last

This article appeared in the Q1 2015 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.