On 7th September I visited the CENEX Low Carbon Vehicles event at Millbrook to find out what was going on in the world of low carbon transport. This was the 10th year, and in that time the topic has moved from the very margins of the industry much closer to the centre. Have we reached the tipping point? Probably not yet, but in the displays and talks you could sense that low carbon vehicles are much closer to being mainstream than at any time previously. With over 140 exhibitors, there was certainly plenty to look at.

Electric vehicles everywhere!

The feeling of the event was overwhelmingly full-electric vehicles. There were some hybrids and some fuel cell vehicles, but the majority of the exhibits were electric vehicles, components and systems. Every type of vehicle was on display from electric motorbikes, through quad bikes, passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, to full-size buses and refuse collection trucks.

Another strong theme of the event was connected and autonomous vehicles(CAV), and it looks like we are seeing a convergence between electric vehicles and CAV. Partly because any vehicle design for the future would incorporate connected and autonomous technologies, but also because they could be particularly valuable for electric vehicles. Whilst range and charging remains a problem, route planning based on traffic conditions and available charging points, and efficient use of available battery power, is likely to be a selling point for the average consumer.

No driver and no passenger

At the visually exciting end of CAV technology was the Roborace car. A driverless and passengerless electric race car designed to run on Formula E circuits. It is a technology testbed designed to push components, algorithms and software control systems to their limits. In the same way that Formula 1 develops technologies that later find their way into mainstream production, the hope is that Robocar will do the same for autonomous vehicles. That might or might not be true but it certainly looks amazing.

Cities aim at a low carbon future

Whilst most of the displays were about the vehicles and their component technologies, a stand from the Go Ultra Low programme focused on how you provide the necessary infrastructure and confidence for the public to switch to low carbon vehicles. Dundee, Milton Keynes and Nottingham were showing how they were using government funding to tackle the specific issues that each of these cities face. Dundee’s transport system is heavily dependent on taxis, and their focus was on helping the taxi fleet to switch. Milton Keynes has large numbers of inbound commuters and is looking at ways of encouraging them into low carbon vehicles. Nottingham’s problem is air quality, so their programme focuses on clean air and reduced congestion. All have set very stretching targets for the coming years, and it will be interesting to see how they progress.

It’s the batteries stupid!

Among components, there was a lot of activity around batteries. For electric vehicles to succeed in the longer term we need batteries that are high-capacity, longer life, cheaper, faster charging and more easily recycled. Identified as a real barrier, the UK Government is putting £246 million over four years into battery technology through its Faraday Challenge.

The AMPLiFII project brings together OEMs, supply chain partners and technology providers to develop a UK capability to produce batteries for a wide range of automotive applications. 12 partners are working together on this challenge and they have created an automated pilot plant for battery manufacture at University of Warwick.

A battery of a different type is the Sunamp heat battery, using phase-change materials to store heat energy in a convenient form. This has a number of automotive applications. The heat battery can be used to provide heating and cooling for the vehicle cabin without draining the electric battery and reducing range. They can also be used in more conventional vehicles to improve fuel economy and drive down emissions. You can preheat the engine to reduce the emissions on cold-start, or preheat a catalytic converter to reduce the time taken to reach the temperature where it is efficiently cleaning the exhaust. Another example is buses and coaches where the engine is often idles for several minutes before use to bring the inside to a comfortable temperature for the passengers. A heat battery can reduce both the time and the emissions needed to get a bus ready.

But is it sustainable?

As someone with a keen interest in sustainability, I’m always interested in how people are thinking about re-use, remanufacture and recycling in designing new transport systems. There is always a risk that new technologies bring one set of benefits, but make creating a circular economy much more difficult. All the people I spoke to were aware of the problem, and were trying to design their way around it.

For example, battery technology suppliers were thinking hard about second use and recycling. Once the batteries are no longer useful for electric vehicles, can they be switched, adapted or refurbished for use in other applications? And does that potential change of use have to be designed in from the beginning?

The AMPLiFII project with its modular battery design has got second use built into their thinking, and they are also actively working on ways to recycle and recover critical materials from the batteries.

Reducing the weight of vehicles is one obvious way to reduce energy demand and emissions, but most lighter materials that can be used for vehicle structural components are much harder to recycle than steel. Composites have traditionally been hard to recycle, but a couple of suppliers I spoke to said the materials they were promoting could be broken down and reused. You get the benefit of lighter weight, greater strength and fewer fastenings, and you can still recycle end of life.

Aluminium is another lightweight material for vehicle construction, but for cost and sustainability reasons we need better ways of recycling. Jaguar Land Rover has been working for some time on a closed loop system for aluminium. After a successful project that allowed efficient recycling of production scrap from inside the factory, they are now working with partners on the much bigger challenge of using post-consumer waste aluminium. In project REALITY they are looking at ways of rapidly sorting different grades of aluminium into different streams for reuse. For example, diecast aluminium and sheet aluminium have different chemical compositions, and it is much easier to keep them in separate recycling streams than to try and create materials with the right engineering properties out of a mixture.

All in all, a fascinating and encouraging day. There is an enormous and growing amount of work on creating commercially viable ultra-low carbon vehicles, and visible progress is being made. Are there solutions for every type of use yet? Definitely not. But for commuter trips and last mile delivery we are there already, and that is a very large number of vehicle miles in some of our most polluted areas.

I am excited by what is going on and will be back next year to see what is on show at LCV 2018.

Visiting the Future of Low Carbon Vehicles
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