Automotive moves into the quantum computing fast lane

Quantum computing is one potential route to accelerate progress in new energy technologies like EVs and fuel cells. By Simon McAdams

Cars have always fired the imagination, combining leading-edge technology and precision engineering to stay ahead of consumer demand. A recent survey by Ipsos found that over two-thirds of citizens (68%) across 34 countries support government spending on subsidies to make technologies including electric vehicles (EVs) cheaper. A global Accenture survey of car buyers and drivers found “sustainability is no longer a secondary concern”, with the majority (64%) of respondents across seven countries rating themselves “sustainability-minded drivers”, most preferring that their next vehicle run on “new energy” sources such as batteries, natural gas, fuel cells or hybrid solutions.

Many now expect that quantum computers will begin to outperform classical within a number of years

Automotive companies are currently exploring quantum computing as one potential route to help them accelerate progress in new energy technologies. Quantum computers are already being explored for several challenges, including simulating complex molecular and material systems to produce next-generation battery or hydrogen fuel cell technologies, improving the longevity of build materials, for example by improving their resistance to corrosion, and developing new methods to optimise manufacturing processes and vehicle routing.

Multiple companies have made public their exploratory work in quantum computing, including Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Hyundai, and Ford, with such companies investigating state-of-the-art quantum hardware and software systems and error mitigation methods that are required to run algorithms on today’s quantum computers. There is a wide recognition that, with so much investment now going into quantum computing by governments and across all major industries, it is the right time to look ahead to where quantum computers may gain an advantage over their classical counterparts, and become capable of tackling certain problems that are intractable today, such as simulating complex molecular and material systems.

A quantum computer based on an ion-trap has been used by automotive companies to explore methods for simulating chemical systems such as corrosion. Picture courtesy of Quantinuum

One example that reveals how quantum computers may offer progress is in catalyst design. Catalysts are a vital component in hydrogen fuel cells as they speed up the otherwise sluggish reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. Unfortunately, today’s catalysts rely on platinum, making vehicles that use the technology prohibitively expensive. Hence, a better understanding of this process would accelerate the development of catalysts that use less precious metals or instead rely on other earth-abundant inexpensive materials. This is easier said than done as current methods for computationally modelling such reactions make many approximations at the expense of accuracy. Whereas more accurate methods are only applicable to the smallest of problems due to the associated computational costs. Future quantum computers on the other hand provide the best of both worlds, allowing such complex problems to be modelled to the necessary levels of accuracy.

Today’s quantum computers are not yet sufficiently large or stable to solve these problems, so they do not yet offer an advantage over classical systems, but that time is getting closer. The reason so many automotive companies are now investing in quantum computing is that many now expect that quantum computers will begin to outperform classical within a number of years, and now is the right time to develop internal quantum computing expertise, identify suitable use cases, and design solutions in tandem with the evolving quantum software and hardware.

The adoption of quantum computing is in its early stages, but for automotive companies with an eye on future innovation, the time has come to start building the necessary foundations.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Simon McAdams is product lead at Quantinuum

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