Every year I try to get to the Cenex Low Carbon Vehicles show at Millbrook proving ground. It’s a great way to take the pulse of the industry and to learn more about the future of transport. You find out about the trends, and you see which technologies are going mainstream and which technologies are emerging from the research labs into practical application.
This year I found plenty of interesting ideas being displayed and discussed. So, I will divide my thoughts into several blogs. The first will focus on the critical role that small, imaginative and nimble companies can play in rapidly testing out new ideas.
Checking out the Niche Vehicle Network
When I get to the show, the first thing I do is walk briskly through the exhibition halls, out onto the open-air display apron, and head for the Niche Vehicles Network. I know that I will always find something intriguing and challenging there. The Niche Vehicles Network is a cluster of specialist automotive manufacturers making low production volume vehicles from sports cars to trucks and vans, and specialised components.
They share expertise, collaborate and carry out R&D; often working with larger OEMs. They get government support from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, Innovate UK, the Advanced Propulsion Centre, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Their skills in small volume production and rapid prototyping allow them to tackle projects with the speed and nimbleness that the bigger manufacturers cannot equal. If you want to see the full range of their work, check out their live research projects.
So what grabbed my eye as I walked around the display?
Making recycled titanium a practical raw material
The first project I looked at was a lightweight wheel using titanium and carbon fibre composite. That was interesting, but the bit that grabbed my attention was when Philip Hedley from AJE Powertrain showed me how they make the hub and spoke components from recycled titanium.
Titanium is a useful but expensive material. There are many steps involved in making a billet of pure alloy and machining it into a component. It would be a real cost and environmental win if we could quickly and simply produce new components from scrap titanium. That is exactly what this project has achieved. They sinter Titanium alloy swarf from component machining in an electrically heated graphite mould under high pressure. The forged component is nearly in its final shape, so you only need to remove the minimum amount of material to finish the process. This can cut component costs by 80% and reduce waste by 70% compared to conventional processes.
New ways of recycling and reusing metals and alloys cuts costs and reduces environmental impact, allowing a wider range of applications for these high-performance engineering materials.
When you design from the ground up things don’t have to look the way you expect
The next thing I spotted was this rather strange looking vehicle. I walked around it rather confused until Terence Goad from Performance Projects Ltd explained that this was a testing platform for fully autonomous agricultural vehicle. Performance Projects did the mechanical work, and Dynium Robot provided the sensors, control systems and software. It has standard hitches and power takeoff to operate conventional farm equipment like sprayers. The target application is difficult environments like poly-tunnels and orchards where GPS is not reliable or accurate enough.
I didn’t recognise it is first because most autonomous tractor projects are based on a conventional tractor with a cab. Building something from the ground up freed Performance Projects from the usual design constraints. Without a cab and a driver you save weight. With electric drive you save even more weight. The battery gives a low centre of gravity and great stability. All this means you don’t need the giant drive wheels we immediately think of when we hear the word tractor. Field trials are underway, and I’m looking forward to seeing the descendants of this prototype in use fairly soon.
The freedom of design that comes from electric and autonomous vehicle technology means that we can have smaller, lighter and more efficient equipment for our farms.
But let’s not get swept away
The last project started life transporting people, but is now being modified for another use. The Westfield POD is an autonomous people-carrier designed to carry four people over short distances. One application is transferring people between Terminal 5 at Heathrow, car parks and hotels. With a defined and controlled route, a guide track is used to control the PODs. More recently they have upgraded the sensors and control systems so they can use them in a conventional city environment. Tested in the Greenwich area of London, Westfield are exploring opportunities in other countries like South Korea.
Now they are going a step further by emptying the passenger compartment of a standard POD, and turning it into a road sweeper. In the PODSweep project, Westfield are working with Johnston Sweepers and Fusion Processing to build an automatic and autonomous electric powered road sweeper. This will be lighter, safer, cheaper and able to operate continuously if required.
They told me that this is a more demanding application of autonomous vehicle technology as you need finer control and better identification of objects. The clutter of small objects at ground level really challenges the targeting algorithms. No one wants to accidentally sweep up a cat or a small dog!
A production version will probably look very different, as they built this prototype using standard components, but you can see instantly how it would work.
These three projects show the ability of small, flexible engineering companies to quickly develop prototypes and test new ideas. I don’t know which will succeed with mass vehicle manufacturers, but many of the technologies that make it into mainstream use will have started life in a project similar to these.