With the region’s car manufacturers now winning awards for their electric vehicle technology, Enda Mullen looks at how one Midland battery maker is embracing an anticipated boom in the market and how it is managing the risk.
Back in the 1960s the cult cartoon show The Jetsons painted a future where people did their daily toing and froing in cars that could fly.
Though flying cars remain a fanciful notion, predictions in more recent times – given the world’s rapidly diminishing oil reserves – have focused on a future where cars are no longer reliant purely on fossil fuels but on whatever power source is fuelling the National Grid.
Indeed we’re now at the point where the electric vehicle, or EV as it has been coined, is well and truly with us.
Many of the main manufacturers are now selling cars which you plug in to recharge their battery and which travel milkfloat fashion in eerie silence.
You can choose from several, including a Nissan Leaf, a Tata Indica, a Mitsubishi i MiEV, a Peugeot iOn or sometime fairly soon a Vauxhall Ampera.
And those who want to get far away from those unfortunate milkfloat comparisons can even plump for a performance-focused Tesla Roadster that brings sportscar thrills to the EV market.
The infrastructure is here too and in Birmingham city centre you can utilise parking meter-style charging points at special parking spaces thanks to the CABLED (Coventry and Birmingham Low Emission Demonstrators) project – and even park for free to boot.
But how likely is that all-electric future? Most industry pundits tend to agree there is likely to be a mixture of technologies employed to reduce the automotive industry’s carbon footprint, a process that is already well underway.
The diesel/electric hybrids being developed by Jaguar Land Rover are also likely to play just as important a part as all electric vehicles but there’s no doubt the market is set to mushroom over the next decade and though not all of us will be whizzing around silently while simultaneously making sure we have enough charge in the battery to get to where we need to, there’s no doubt many more than at present will be going down this route.
Coventry-based lithium-ion battery manufacturer Evida Power would seem to be in no doubt just how big the EV market is going to be and has appointed an industry heavyweight in the shape of David Roberts to spearhead its growth.
The former head of Chrysler UK, who successfully turned the company around before it was sold to PSA Group, also played a key role at Aston Martin developing and implementing a groundbreaking quality assurance strategy.
He is now relishing the challenge of making the most of the predicted EV explosion and even though he’s a confessed “petrolhead” believes they are set to change the automotive world beyond recognition over the next decade, even if the public have been slow to respond to what’s on offer.
“One of the reasons I got into Evida was the opportunity of the next decade within electric vehicles,” said Mr Roberts. “Everyone would agree there has been a slow uptake but there is a momentum building and all manufacturers have a vehicle to offer. It is the start of a decade of continuous development of electric vehicles.”
As the technology evolves Mr Roberts believes EVs will make their presence felt first in Europe’s big cities.
“We will see electric vehicles in numbers over the next few years and they will be concentrated in major European cities like London, Milan, Munich and Paris.
“You will see cities populated with electric vehicles. Birmingham is a good city too in this regard as it recognises automotive and has got automotive in its blood. But it is important with any city that its leadership supports it and promotes it.
“You need some incentive from the authorities, a reduction in parking fees, dedicated lanes and dedicated parking and some authorities would want to see demand before taking the plunge.”
“But Birmingham is a cosmopolitan city and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a part of this.”
One of the stumbling blocks though is the cost of an electric vehicle.
Nissan’s LEAF will set buyers back £30,990 while the Peugeot iOn costs £33,155, meaning at present it is technology that is far from cheap.
“The one barrier I see is cost,” said Mr Roberts. “That is a difficult argument to win. It is easier for the fleet market and municipalities but more difficult in the private buyer market.”
But he believes ownership will increase over time, as technology evolves and costs come down. “As volumes increase costs will come down,” he said.
“Before you get that you have to get the general public interested in what an electric car is all about. It is a long road, but I think it will gain momentum.”
Evida’s future is intrinsically tied up with that of EV manufacturer Mia Electric, after it signed a deal to supply battery packs to the fledgling French company, which is backed by German pharmaceutical entrepreneur Edwin Kohl.
It is a company, according to Mr Roberts, that has embraced an environmental ethos in everything it does.
He said: “It’s an electric vehicle company where the whole focus, atmosphere and psychology is about green and environmentally friendly issues, from the materials in the factory to how the factory is put together. It has been built purely on green lines. Even the air-conditioning is powered by the river next to the factory.”
Mia’s first vehicle will be seen on UK roads for the first time next year and Mr Roberts believes it will go down well, even with people who don’t envisage going down the EV route.
“I’m a petrolhead and I drive fast cars,” he said. “The first time in a Mia my expectations weren’t great but I was pleasantly surprised.
“It’s a cool car, a calm car and a very good example of what an electric vehicle is all about – something you sense as soon as you start driving it.
“The problem when you sit in a car sometimes you think ‘it is my space, my car, my road and I am the best driver’.
“In an EV I am more relaxed and prepared to let people go past me. That is what struck me when I first drove it – it made me feel good.”
But research suggests EV manufacturers have some way to go before car buyers embrace the concept. A report by Deloitte’s Global Manufacturing Industry Group concluded consumers expect to be able to go farther, on less charge time, for a lower price than manufacturers are currently able to offer. The report, which surveyed 13,000 consumers, also found 71 per cent of car buyers expect to pay the same price or less for an electric vehicle.
Speaking about the report, Craig Giffi, DTTL global automotive sector leader said: “This can be invaluable for automakers as they shape their plans to build EVs to appeal to consumers worldwide. The real challenge, however, is meeting global consumer expectations, which is significantly different to the realities of what EVs can deliver today.”
But Mr Roberts believes patience is an intrinsic part of the process.
He also feels there is an inevitability about the rise of the electric vehicle, prophetically pointing to the Chinese who he believes have already ‘wised up’ to the fact that as car ownership among its 1.4 billion population spirals EVs represent the only real option.
“China will be the biggest market for electric vehicles,” he added. “There is an understanding in China of why they require it and I can see it being a very big market indeed.”