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Industry focus -low carbon vehicles

We look at what’s going on within the UK’s low carbon automotive industry, what skills employers are after, what opportunities are out there and what are the best routes into the sector.

It is difficult to quantify the low carbon automotive industry as it isn’t defined as a single sector. One of the best indicators of progress in the field, however, is the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ (SMMT) annual New Car CO2 Report. The 13th and most recent edition was published in March 2014 and showed that while petrol and diesel cars still account for 99 per cent of total market volume, the share and volume of alternatively fuelled vehicles (AFV) continued to rise in 2013.

AFVs are on average 30 per cent lower CO2-emitting than petrol/diesel cars. According to the report, there are 47 models of AFVs in the UK in 2013 compared to only 21 in 2010. Reduction in emissions from new cars has helped lower total CO2 emissions from all the cars on the road by more than 15 per cent over the last decade according to SMMT.

What’s happening in the low carbon automotive industry?

Although numbers seem small, the improvements are significant. The SMMT report showed that the average new car CO2 emissions in the UK fell 3.6 per cent to 128.3g/km in 2013. It means the UK has achieved the below 130g/km pan-European 2012-2015 target. The EU target for 2020 is 95g/km.

There is a large amount of research and development, private and publicly funded projects and partnership working helping to build the sector. Alongside this, cars such as the BMWi3, Nissan LEAF, VW e-Up!, Citroen C-Zero and Renault Fluence are establishing a more public profile for the sector (these are among those ranking highest in the SMMT’s top 20 lowest ranking CO2 emitting models for 2013).

“The UK has now passed the 6,000 electric car mark,” says Chris Walsh, head of technical support and consultancy at Cenex, established in 2005 as the UK’s first centre of excellence for low carbon and fuel cell technologies. “Each vehicle brought to the market is making the change happen.”

Low carbon projects

Cenex runs a range of programmes and these include Plugged-in Midlands, which will form part of a national charging infrastructure for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It is also behind the Niche Vehicle Research and Development Network, which brings together independent vehicle manufacturers, system suppliers, automotive technology companies and universities, to collaborate on the innovative application of technologies in low-volume vehicle production.

Meanwhile the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) was set up in 2003 and is a public-private partnership to accelerate a sustainable shift to lower carbon vehicles and fuels and to create opportunities for UK businesses.

Head of communications Neil Wallis says the auto-sector has been emerging as a “UK industrial success story” in recent years with high rates of investment in vehicle production, R&D and associated supply chain activities.

“In the auto sector, at least, there is a strong case for saying ‘green and growth, we can have both,’” he says.

The partnership has just commissioned research to look at the strength of the link between low carbon policy and the rate of investment in the UK automotive sector. Meanwhile, a number of car manufacturers are also leading development: last year, Jaguar Land Rover announced it would lead the £16.3m ‘Evoque_e’ collaborative research project to develop new hybrid and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) technology (Evoque_e is supported by the UK’s innovation agency the Technology Strategy Board to encourage collaboration between industry, suppliers and leading universities in the UK).

Indeed, a number of universities have emerged as specialists in the field including Coventry University, which is working with Coventry City Council to make the city a test-bed for the low carbon technologies, and Oxford Brookes, whose Sustainable Vehicle Engineering Centre is involved in a number of key projects.

The Government is aiming to develop UK automotive into a world leader in low-carbon technology industry is working with the industry on the Go Ultra Low campaign, which aims to promote the benefits of ultra-low emission vehicles as well as educate consumers and help inform purchasing decisions.

What skills will be required and what opportunities will exist?

Clearly, electrical and mechanical engineers will be well placed to find opportunities in this sector but the challenges are many and varied and a key focus is on creating affordable and sustainable technologies.

“There are plenty of technical challenges from the development of battery technology with improved capacity at lower costs to advanced or second-generation biofuels which reduce carbon emission over the full product life-cycle,” says Wallis.

Walsh, a mechanical engineering graduate, says that with sustainability a theme in all engineering jobs, those who want to enter the market potentially have plenty of choices.

“Whether it’s the powertrains of the future or vehicle and chassis design, sustainability is all part of the product design cycle,” he says. “So you could focus on a job like I do where you are specifically looking at the future transition or equally work within an engineering company at the point it is interfacing with low carbon.”

And it isn’t just about the vehicles themselves, he says. “The infrastructure to support them is really significant and you have to grow this while getting the vehicles on the road.”

Who are potential employers and what are the best routes in?

In short, anyone involved in the development of low carbon technologies and this ranges from car manufacturers and F1 teams to those providing infrastructure solutions and other services in the supply chain. Graduate and apprenticeship opportunities won’t necessarily focus solely on low carbon but with sustainability a core value for many organisations, opportunities to specialise further down the line are likely to exist.

That said, some companies do offer a low carbon focus from the start. These include Ricardo with its sustainability consultancy Ricardo-AEA whose Sustainable Transport Practice offers careers for engineering graduates interested in low carbon vehicles, alternative fuels and transport-related environmental policies. Alternatively, you may like to equip yourself with specialist qualifications: Cenex’s Chris Walsh gained qualifications in technology and innovation management and sustainable leadership in addition to his engineering degree.

Where can you find out more?

Check out the websites of car manufacturers and those in the supply chain, which will detail their low carbon activity. The Cenex and LowCVP websites provide a good overview of particular projects taking place and which will help you to stay abreast of sector news.

Those interested in working in this area should also attend events such as Cenex’s annual Low Carbon Vehicle event in September and get in touch with networking groups such as the IET’s Automotive and Road Transport Systems Network and the IET Transport Sector.

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