If you ask me
E&T reports from the 2nd UK Low Carbon Vehicle Event last month and we ponder the lessons learned for industry from the credit crunch.
An electric future?
Over 1,700 technologists, engineers, policy makers and fleet operators attended last month's national UK Low Carbon Vehicle Event. LCV2009, which was more than twice the size of the inaugural event held last year, featured more than 140 exhibitor organisations, reflecting the massive increase in interest in this sector.
The success of the event, organised by Cenex, the UK national centre of excellence for low-carbon and fuel-cell technologies, was mirrored in the real sense of purpose displayed by participants. LCV2008 featured much discussion of planned UK activities; this year the two-day event saw government ministers, CEOs of engineering companies, academics, and pro-electric lobbyists debating actions now in place to roll out low-carbon road vehicles.
Arguably the highlight of UK activity this year is the £25m Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator Programme, coordinated by the UK Technology Strategy Board, which will deploy over 340 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in eight UK locations. Such projects are crucial in providing the evidence base on the viability of the wider rollout of electric drive.
Addressing the infrastructure issue, the Energy Technologies Institute has just announced its 'Joined Cities' programme, where nine UK cities will share an £11m fund to install charging infrastructure points. Cenex has also issued the first call for the UK Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Grant Programme, which will make £1m available to support the installation of electric, natural gas/biomethane and hydrogen refuelling facilities in the UK.
On the consumer demand side, Mitsubishi announced the launch next month of the i MiEV, claiming a range of 100 miles; other manufacturers have announced the introduction of similarly capable vehicles in 2010/12. These timelines coincide with the Department for Transport's £250m programme which begins in 2011/12 aimed at subsidising the initial higher purchase price of electric vehicles.
In the UK, road transport accounts for around 22 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. There was a consensus at LCV2009 that a tipping point has been reached on the path to a decarbonised road transport sector. Cenex has played a significant part in building a coherent clean-vehicle community from both the supply and demand sides of low-carbon vehicles at a rate that could not have been anticipated when the organisation was formed in 2005.
The challenge for future activity, and indeed LCV2010, as formulated by the Technology Strategy Board, is to carry the level of engagement exemplified in the automotive space by LCV2009 across all transportation and indeed technology sectors.
The 2006 Eddington Transport Study proposed that a 5 per cent reduction in travel time for all business and freight travel on the roads could generate around £2.5bn of cost savings - or some 0.2 per cent of GDP. By taking a holistic approach to the transport sector, viewed as a series of interconnected systems, the aim is to provide systems-level solutions drawn from all technology areas - such as automotive, electronics, energy generation and supply, intelligent transport systems and materials.
Of course not all technologies are applicable across all modes, but all share the twin challenges of providing affordable and efficient transportation as a prime enabler of economic prosperity and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
That which does not kill us…
If there's one good thing that ought to come out of the crisis in manufacturing that accompanied the credit crunch, it's a new realisation of the need for mutuality and self-reliance in industry.
The financial crisis showed that too many businesses of all sorts were over-dependent on borrowed money. Instead of going for organic growth, they went to the banks, but when the banks got scared - or, in the worst cases, went under - it was the borrowers who got knifed in the back, not the bankers who actually deserved the knifing.
To add insult to injury, now that many small manufacturers are reporting an upturn in trade, the banks are still playing hard to get. According to a recent survey by pressure group the Forum of Private Business (FPB), 78 per cent of those questioned said the terms and conditions of lending had worsened during 2009, and the remaining 22 per cent said there had been no change in the situation. No-one said they had improved. Two-thirds added that the cost of finance had increased, and more than half also said that access to working capital had worsened.
A recent survey by the EEF also found problems of manufacturers struggling to get bank finance. Worse, the EEF report said that innovative and better-performing manufacturers were the ones most likely to be denied finance - surely a clear sign, if any more were needed, that the banking sector is industrially illiterate, and utterly unfit to hold the power that it has.
Thankfully, the EEF also reported that, even without the banks' dubious help, companies were managing to increase investment in innovation, for example by diverting cash freed up by training grants, or through collaboration with customers, suppliers and universities to make the most of scarce funds.
And perhaps that is the message to take away from all this: Industry needs to stop letting an incompetent bunch of bankers place a noose around its neck. It needs to stop choosing the cheapest subcontractor, and then getting stitched up when financial pressure encourages your subcontractor to sub-subcontract to someone even cheaper, and even more careless of environmental and product safety considerations. Instead, companies need to get back to building networks and spending time on learning who you can trust to deal with you fairly and honestly, whether they are in the UK or abroad.
The opportunities are there for manufacturers and others to collaborate, to move what capital there is to where it is needed - and to remember that innovation and manufacturing are not zero-sum games: we can go further by working together than we will as individuals.
It reminds me of the Japanese with their keiretsu - networks of companies who support each other, lend each other money and do business with each other - and the immigrant communities who support one-another to set up businesses. Perhaps they have the right idea after all.