There is an emissions cloud hanging over the global automotive industry.
Sales of diesel cars have slumped in the wake of the “dieselgate” scandal, while pressure to reduce carbon emissions could cause petrol cars – and even petrol-electric hybrids – to begin to be phased out as early as 2025. The outlook therefore appears gloomy for the traditional automakers and their fossil-fuelled vehicles, including in the UK where there has been a large number of job losses in the sector.
On the other hand, sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are growing in the UK and around the globe.
In the Western world at least, Elon Musk’s Tesla is credited with the electric car revolution. What is less well known is that Tesla’s EV sales are dwarfed by those of the Chinese automakers in their home market. Prominent among these is Geely, which bought Volvo from Ford in 2010. Volvo is flourishing under Geely’s ownership, based partly on the brand’s commitment to fully electrify its range of cars.
Geely has since acquired a 51% controlling share in Lotus Cars, and is now seeking to increase its stake and make a £1.5 billion investment in the company and its famous brand of sports cars. This will involve recruitment of many more engineers to support the development of new models in the UK.
But Lotus is much more than a sports car maker. It is a leading automotive consultancy, providing behind-the-scenes technical expertise to many of the world’s large car makers (including Tesla, interestingly). By acquiring Lotus, Geely gains access to this enviable technical capability.
Geely’s investment in Lotus is a clear vote of confidence in the UK’s capabilities in automotive engineering. And that suggests there is a silver lining to that bothersome cloud: new opportunities afforded by British engineering excellence.
And it’s not the traditional large automakers that are grabbing those opportunities, but entrepreneurial outsiders and agile small firms.
Take James Dyson, the British inventor with a long-held ambition to find a solution to air pollution. Having already “cleaned up” in the domestic appliances sector, his company is now setting its sights firmly on the EV market.
Dyson is making a £2 billion investment in its EV project, which entails the recruitment of hundreds of engineers in the UK. The project will be handled in-house, Dyson having already purchased battery company Sakti3 and its relevant technology. Launch of the new vehicle is planned in 2020.
Meanwhile, low-volume performance car specialist Ariel Cars is developing its Hipercar (High-Performance Carbon Reduction) EV, which will rival the gas-guzzling Bugatti Chiron supercar for performance.
According to Ariel founder Simon Saunders, a lot of the technology involved with Hipercar doesn’t exist yet; there’s an opportunity for the UK, as well as Ariel, to become experts in it. Ariel is taking a co-operative approach, by working with Delta Motorsport and Equipmake to provide major components and subsystems.
The technical team includes young graduates from Formula Student, led by experienced engineers. A move to a larger, purpose-built site is envisaged, along with a substantial increase in the workforce, in order to handle Hipercar production in the UK.
One innovation is the use of a small turbine engine driving a generator, capable of charging Hipercar’s battery, to increase range. A conventional “range extender” comprises a piston engine, which is more complex and less space efficient than the compact turbine engine.
New entrants like Ariel and Dyson recognise that the need for innovation in EV development lies not only in new batteries and drivetrains, but also in related areas such as efficient heat management and aerodynamics. The technical challenges are considerable, but so too are the opportunities for British companies to forge ahead.
It will be exciting to see the various innovations that will emerge from the EV sector in the coming years, including the new British entrants. What is certain is that technical advances will be made by participants of all kinds, from the corporate giants driving new industry standards to the micro-businesses carving out their own specialist niche.
So how might the innovators in EV technologies protect their valuable intellectual property (IP)? This remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely to be a case of one-size-fits-all.
Tesla has made its patents “open source”, seemingly as a tactic to try to tip manufacturer and market adoption in favour of its technologies. As a large, well-funded corporation intent on disrupting the motor industry, Tesla’s approach makes a lot of sense. But small or medium-sized players are in a different position altogether, and might be well advised to establish defensive patent portfolios in order to protect their innovations and give them leverage with their competitors.
It seems reasonable to expect that Dyson, at least, will take a defensive attitude to IP generated by its EV project, since the company has historically viewed its IP as key to its success. Dyson has built up an extensive IP portfolio, and has not shied away from enforcing its IP rights when they have been infringed.
The approaches taken by the participants to protect their IP may be as varied as the participants themselves, since what suits one might not suit another. For example, those innovators who collaborate with (or outsource to) others may protect themselves by putting in place appropriate IP contracts, for instance with regard to research and development, non-disclosure and confidentiality, and technology transfer. For those going it alone, such measures are probably less relevant.
Whatever the approach may be, a critical factor for any successful IP strategy is fitness for purpose. This requires a proper understanding of the business and its commercial goals, as well as its technical innovations.
The UK is internationally renowned, not only for excellence in engineering but also for the quality of its IP system. That is good reason to be optimistic that innovative, IP-aware British companies will prosper in the growing EV sector.