The Overlooked Science of Subjective Engineering?

The traditional perception of engineering is that it deals only in absolutes. But as the automotive industry has discovered, subjective engineering is equally critical. Jonathan Maybin, who leads automotive attribute engineering services at Whistle client, HORIBA MIRA, explains more.


(Article first published in the Engineer, October 5, 2022)

In a global car market worth an estimated $3.8tr annually, it is the brand that often drives customer choice, not only defining an OEM’s success but enabling them to charge a premium for performance. A car brand is however more than skin-deep and extends beyond the superficiality of car styling. The subjective attributes of a car – how it handles, how it imbues a driver with confidence in its consistency, or how safe or exciting it feels – extends these characteristics right down to the subconscious level for a prospective buyer and defines success in this intense competition to meet ever-more discerning consumer requirements.

This ‘engineering to consumer preference’ is made all the more complex by attribute array for any given car model being myriad, extending potentially to thousands of characteristics – many of which may conflict with one another. Delivering, for instance, a ride characteristic that a driver might regard as refined or luxurious could restrict the ability to deliver a feeling of high-performance feedback for a more active driving experience.

In order to deliver a finished vehicle with characteristics that are on-brand and reflect the virtues of a particular marque, the traditional approach relied on objective engineering processes. Only once a prototype had been developed could the subjective tuning begin as a test driver climbed behind the wheel to assess how a new design behaved dynamically. Unfortunately, the relationship between objective and subjective engineering is not linear, comparable, nor predictable. Form may precede function, resulting in a vehicle that exhibits an unrewarding and forgettable user experience, leaving those behind the wheel ‘numb’ and creating an issue that requires significant investment and resource to resolve.

In recent years, with significant advancements in simulation and simulator hardware capability, the industry has made a step forward in the adoption of virtualisation via the use of driver-in-the-loop (DiL) simulators, accelerating the process of adding a human into the loop at an earlier stage in the virtual series of the development process. The successes of DiL simulation are enabling a more rapid adoption of new and novel approaches, disrupting the traditional industry processes, particularly in the areas of hardware-in-the-loop development and autonomous vehicle validation. This is currently where extensive physical product validation is not only driving cost but limiting the speed and roll-out of new technology. The result is a reduction in the product development risk, the time to market, the carbon footprint associated with building and testing multiple prototype vehicles and also improvements in ultimate product performance.

With a suite of simulators at HORIBA MIRA, our subjective attribute engineering puts the human-in-the-loop at the very start of the virtual series. The use of sophisticated simulator tools gives the attribute development engineer the freedom to make accurate and unlimited attribute comparisons and refinements quickly and at lower cost, often with the mere flick of a switch. This enables multiple informed subjective decisions to be made during the virtual phase of design, as the engineer works to balance conflicting attributes to achieve an optimised vehicle. Built on the strength of the team’s extensive attribute engineering capabilities, HORIBA MIRA is paving the way forward with its novel approach of scenario fuzzing and multi-pillar testing to help reduce the burden of physical ADAS testing without a reduction in product performance.

The subjective engineering approach starts with a PALS assessment – a product attribute leadership strategy – that benchmarks class competitors with which the new vehicle must compete. A jury team will assess all competitor vehicles in a cascade of attribute levels, grading them across a range of performance from class leaderamongst leaders to competitive and so forth. With a fully tiered matrix of competitor attributes that break down into more granular details – for instance, grading handling attribute parameters when cornering in steady state or transient conditions – the new vehicle development team can set target attributes for the new car that will both meet brand expectations while also performing against the class competition.

With targets set, the subjective engineering process leads the vehicle’s development.  The virtual series is now so powerful that complex components or systems such as active anti-roll bars, rear wheel steer and torque vectoring can all be developed and calibrated earlier in the vehicle’s development cycle, enabling the engineers to do more in a shortened development cycle. This cascade of subjective attributes gives rise to enormous scope of optimisation that may demand 1,500 or more variables are assessed and subjectively optimised before a single nut or bolt is manufactured.

As automotive engineering scales a revolution in new technologies – spanning electrified powertrains, connected and autonomous functionality, new human machine interfaces and wholesale revisions to vehicle interiors to respond to new functional requirements – subjective attribute engineering has become ever more important to accommodate these developments without waste, time or cost.

Find out more about HORIBA MIRA here

Start-ups and Slow-downs: Delivering growth in a declining market

Investment in UK tech start-ups has increased at record rates as the global economy slows after the coronavirus pandemic. 

Between January and May 2022, British technology companies raised more than £12bn in investment. This record fundraising brought UK start-up investment to the top of the pack, trailing only behind the US, and surpassing Chinese investment for the first time in recent history. Home to more tech start-up unicorns than any country other than the US and China, the UK is experiencing unprecedented growth in its tech sector. 

However, this meteoric rise is set against the backdrop of a post-pandemic economy, and signs of a fall back to earth are imminent. The global market is slowing, and base-rate rises by central banks means loans are increasingly expensive. Many start-ups formed during the pandemic (like grocery delivery services and virtual conferencing platforms) had sky-high valuations but are now fighting to prove their post-pandemic worth. 

Venture capital investment firms, who too raised unprecedented funds during the pandemic, are increasingly skeptical of backing start-ups and unicorns as it becomes more expensive to invest. A now common trend in UK post-pandemic VC is “haircutting”, when start-ups raise at a higher rate than previous rounds of investment but still  receive far less funding than anticipated based on valuation.  


What does this mean for start-ups and VC firms in the UK?

There are now more UK tech start-ups than ever, funded by an extraordinary amount of domestic and international money. But this crowded marketplace is backed by global investors, and overseas markets are experiencing a distinct downturn. So, start-ups must separate themselves from the pack, establishing not only feasibility but also prominence in a populous market.  Meanwhile, VCs must be more selective in their investment while vying for the most viable start-ups (and ensuring that the start-ups they have already funded succeed). 

In both cases, public relations and reputation management can contribute to success. For start-ups, strategic relationship- and identity-building serve to pinpoint their purpose. In the UK, investment in purpose-driven start-ups has increased to $3.5bn in the past decade. Additionally, there is a positive correlation between strategic reputation management and revenue, key to building credibility as start-ups seek VC investment. Media coverage of start-ups has been shown to increase VC investment, performance during IPO, and long-term survival chances. 

For VCs, establishing marketplace security through reputation development is key to succeeding in a post-pandemic economy. Reputable VCs, or VCs that have a strong public presence that reflects the success and trustworthiness of the firm, benefit from less costly and larger fundraising and are more likely to invest in successful start-ups. Reputation and public relations have been found to be more significant indicators of VC success than the age of the firm, its investments, or its connectedness in the market. 

As liquidity tightens, it can seem counterintuitive at first glance to spend valuable cash to fortify reputation and fund or portfolio company profile; however, investment in PR might very well be the difference between success and failure as the market starts to turn.



UK Tech News

New Statesman

Growth Business UK

Journal of PR Research

Corporate Reputation Review

Journal of Financial Economics



Coming Soon. Or Here Already? Quantum Computing-as-a-Service


Alongside Oxford’s commitment to advancing AI technologies, delivering a quantum compute capability to the commercial sector in a service format is an equally effervescent field of enquiry  both the city and the university. As such, Oxford is reckoned to be the UK’s largest and most diverse centre for quantum research with 38 operational research teams focused on harnessing quantum effects in a new generation of devices that will outperform existing classical computers.

And some of this endeavour has found its way to real-world application, most notably with Oxford Quantum Circuits, who operate the UK’s only commercially-available quantum computer  in the UK. OQC’s Quantum Computing-as-a-Service (QCaaS) platform has been put to work, most notably in a project managed by Cambridge Quantum to address one of the most pressing challenges of the quantum era, the threat to security encryption. Cambridge Quantum used Oxford Quantum Circuits’ QCaaS platform to validate their cybersecurity approach by using verifiable quantum entropy from quantum computers to generate superior cryptographic keys.

Launched in July 2021, Oxford Quantum Circuits’ confident march into the commercial PAYG market identified a range of enterprise applications where a quantum compute capability has the potential to generate exponential gains, including supporting Oxford’s disciplinary focus on AI, with quantum offering the capability to develop yet more powerful algorithms with endless application.

But the reach of quantum will extend far beyond the application of AI. The early adopters of QAAS services are expected to be the pharmas in their search for better predictive health models and therapies, financial institutions seeking more reliable assessments of trading and risk management strategies, energy generators, especially in fields such as battery chemistry and battery management systems (BMS) and organisations concerned with cryptography and national security.

As part of the technology maturity cycle however, the enterprise application of QAAS is perhaps still some way off. Amazon Bracket, the environment designed to enable the testing and validation of quantum algorithms is currently dominated by researchers and government agencies, such as the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics, rather than a phalanx of commercial companies. But for sectors where the dividend is significant, the adoption rate will pivot quickly. The AI/ML experience tells us that the banking and financial sectors typically have the muscle to invest in nascent technologies, especially as the wins for first movers can be significant while less adventurous competitors languish, limited by the constraints of classical computing.

Thus expect QAAS customers in the first instance to come from the banking and finance services industry as they focus on increasing the speed of trade activities, transactions, and data processing manifolds.

Alongside the finance sector, expect to see the pharmaceuticals flock to quantum, again driven by first mover advantage. By the time this pattern is established, QAAS will be as common as classical cloud-based computing is today, in other words quickly becoming ubiquitous in most enterprise contexts and according to KPMG, worth US$86 billion by 2040.

Read more about quantum’s pioneers, including Oxford’s Ilana Wisby here

Cloud-based battery management: a solution to complex degradation

The widespread adoption of electric vehicles is dependent on ease of use: rapid charging is a key factor. However, this comes with significant challenges for safety and can speed up Lithium-ion battery degradation, reducing performance and life. Cloud-based battery management and how it can optimise charging for individual vehicles without accelerating battery ageing provides a pathway to this objective.

As EV take-up increases, not everyone will have access to overnight charging at home. Those needing to charge on-the-go using public charging infrastructure will want this process to happen as quickly as possible. To maintain convenience and align with our expectations learned from internal combustion engine vehicles, a target for vehicle manufacturers is to make recharging as quick as filling with petrol. However, Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are extremely sensitive and rapid charging accelerates battery degradation in some circumstances. Moreover, individual usage patterns will result in unique battery ageing that increases the complexity of providing appropriate solutions.


Causes of degradation

Three of the key factors that contribute to degradation in Li-ion batteries are temperature, state of charge (SoC) and charge current, with each of these having a different effect on how the cell ages.

When a Li-ion cell is operating at a higher than optimal temperature the rate of solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) layer formation and growth can increase leading to heightened lithium consumption. It can also cause a higher rate of cathode oxidisation that results in loss of positive electrode active material. Both phenomena degrade battery performance and life. At the other end of the scale, if the temperature is too low there is the potential of lithium plating. This is the formation of lithium metal deposits on the surface of the anode, which causes rapid degradation and can result in hazardous conditions that pose a safety concern such as thermal runaway.

State of charge is the ratio of the amount of charge stored in a battery relative to the total charge that battery can store. At high SoC, the increased instability between electrode and electrolytes can cause increased chemical reactions. This accelerates degradation of the electrolyte and both active materials. Low SoC can also cause degradation due to contraction and subsequent damage to the negative electrode and surrounding SEI layer.

High charging currents can also contribute to degradation, particularly at low temperatures. Higher charging currents cause greater average current density at the negative electrode. This lowers the negative electrode potential, which in turn increases the propensity of lithium plating. This can cause rapid degradation and creates risk of thermal runaway. It is heavily dependent on cell temperature and the current magnitude seen by the anode during charge: the higher the charge current and lower the temperature, the bigger the risk. If conditions are favourable for lithium to plate on the anode surface quickly, it can form dendrites, metallic microstructures that consume lithium, increase resistance and pose a safety risk.


Mitigating degradation

The considerable scope of influencing factors such as temperature, SoC and current result in a wide variation of Li-ion battery ageing characteristics. Sensitivity to these parameters is also highly design dependent, with individual cell designs behaving differently. But, by using vehicle data to determine the complex changes in cell performance and its principal causes, it is possible to mitigate degradation.

A baseline charging profile is developed for the vehicle with on-board analysis evaluating capacity and power fade state of health metrics. When there is deviation from the original beginning of life characteristics, the data is passed to the cloud when the vehicle is plugged in during rapid charging.

In the cloud, incremental capacity analysis (ICA) is used to investigate the capacity and health of the Li-ion batteries. This approach goes beyond standard state of health estimation. The cloud-based evaluation algorithm can distinguish the type of degradation. In this case of capacity fade, this is from three main types: loss of lithium, negative electrode active material loss, or positive electrode active material loss. The combination of the capacity and resistance change symptoms can then be used to identify the root cause of the Li-ion cell ageing.


Creating EV differentiation

With this information it is possible to recalibrate the battery management system for the unique challenges of that individual vehicle. New rapid charging current limits are set and an optimised charging strategy is created. With continuous recalibration of the battery management system on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis, maximum charging capability can be achieved while offering protection against lithium plating.

Cloud-based battery management has the potential to enable faster, safer charging without reducing battery life. Moreover, it’s agnostic, so applicable to any Li-ion cell chemistry or format. For vehicle manufacturers, this solution to battery degradation has the potential to create differentiation amongst EVs, providing a competitive advantage in terms of enhanced convenience, reduced recharging times and without compromising warranty, performance or battery life.




Consortium of Investigative Journalists lays bare SARs failings

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report into the global banking’s sector use of Suspicious Activity Reports or SARs as flags of convenience for laundering dirty money has laid bare the full extent of global capital movements from illicit origins to respectable destinations. One institution alone, Deutsche Bank, filed SARs that according to the FT totalled $1.3tn of transactions, providing a sobering perspective of the size of the problem at hand. While pretty much every major banking institution has been named in the leak and will be reviewing the efficacy of their Due Diligence and KYC, it is apparent that the sector’s emphasis will now certainly shift to more conscientious use of active investigation of capital provenance and rely less on passive SARs. The question is, how will banks make a fist of this need to more actively investigate the provenance of capital moving through their businesses and how to they claw back money that lands outside the system?

Consistent with most conventional wisdom, the starting point is aiming to prevent dark money entering the system in the first place. What is less apparent is exactly how low the due diligence bar is as a protection against fraud. The SARs scandal has now laid this bare. Most responses in the financial sector commence after the DD stage when deals have collapsed or turned sour applying ‘after-the-fact’ analysis of probity and in almost every case, the primary actor should never have been entertained, as in a recent property investment fraud where the most cursory of checks would have uncovered public records of bad character, or in relation to Wildcard’s COO, Jan Marsalek, about whom red flags had been raised years before his hand in one of the more flagrant financial deceits became fully apparent in June last year.

While prevention is always better than cure, if things do go wrong, investigation conducted through traditional legal protocols such as bankruptcy proceedings or forensic accounting rarely succeed, because these are precisely the toolsets the fraudster aims to outwit from the get-go. In the case of the investment fraud above, a law firm with the full support of the courts, had made no headway on the perpetrator’s whereabouts, any known assets or sources of income after 8 months of enquiry.

In such circumstances, different and far more effective investigative protocols are required, informed by military know-how with law enforcement and cyber insight. In this particular case, within three weeks, an independent investigations firm had applied a targeted methodology and unique intelligence collection tools to develop a full profile of the fraudster, including multiple addresses, known associates and likely sources of income. Further investigation identified a network of cash-rental properties and other laundering enterprises that gave the courts the basis for issuing warrants and seizure of property, all at a cost of 1% of the funds recovered.

If principle one is to go beyond vanilla due diligence, then principle two is to deploy investigative protocols that the fraudster will not have prepared to obviate from the outset of their criminal adventure.

Principle three is to mesh these capabilities into an investigative capability that transcends national boundaries. As the SARs scandal emphasises, it is the very movement of capital across territorial borders that enables it to evade tracing and detection, especially in what might be termed hostile jurisdictions.

In a recent investigation for a European investment bank that had lost $800m in a fraud committed by a Russian oligarch, seven years of pursuit with a legal team with recourse to several European courts had failed to make inroads into recovering the misappropriated money. In short order measured in weeks, pan-national investigators were able to identify a network of people of interest to the courts who manifestly were living beyond their income, and identify a number of key actors who held governmental positions. This development not only gave the courts a foothold to bring individuals into the legal system for redress, but also to charge a state in being complicit in the fraud. This positive outcome has transformed seven years of frustration into legal options that allow damages to be awarded and investor’s money to be recovered.

Investigation of financial crime in the globalised economy therefore must scale across jurisdictions. Criminals understand the playbook of the authorities from the application of predictable, hidebound legal processes to the limitation for many forms of enquiry to simply stop at national boundaries. In short, the investigation capabilities need more firepower than the fraudsters.

Autonomous Investment Choices?

Autonomous mobility promises to be one of the most profound disruptive technologies of the next decade. But what does a smart investment roadmap to navigate these opportunities look like?

Autonomous mobility technologies, with their limitless potential to deliver wholesale disruption of established businesses, represent extraordinary investment opportunities. However, consistent with most deep tech, the investment case is fraught with structural challenges including high investment quantum, long-tail investor yields and the danger of IP obsolescence during lengthy investment cycles.

But for investors who know and understand the challenges that come with the deep tech territory and are behind the soaring growth in private capital flows into the sector (estimated at 22% YoY since 2015 by Boston Consulting), autonomous transportation brings its own particular investment playbook — forget the eye-catching moonshot pitches and rather think of tech that makes a clear near-term viability case, is based on low-speed and the delivery of services.

This approach is investigated by the CEO of a very distinct autonomous mobility company, StreetDrone and Lukas Neckermann, a strategist, advisor, researcher, and author on the subject of Smart Cities and Smart Mobility. For his part, Neckermann contends that “Either by design, or by necessity, European-based autonomous tech developers have been challenged to be more creative and frugal in allocating their resources. From an investor point of view, this means, more is being done with less. Given that there is certainly also a need and public desire for home-grown autonomous tech, the European investor is well-placed to look at home, rather than abroad, for value.”


No Route to the Moon

From the Neckermann perspective, therefore, the first rule of thumb for investors surveying the autonomous mobility landscape is to ignore the industry’s poster boy, Waymo and the skewed impression of the market opportunity that the company singlehandedly generates. As a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, Waymo and a number of its competitors are distinct in their pursuit of fully automated driverless vehicles with the capacity and capability of a human driver. Despite the over-amplified speculation of Tesla’s Elon Musk and others, many industry experts consider the full automation to be almost unachievable and a more complex technical challenge than putting man on the moon. And even if the technical challenge was resolvable, the investment cost and timeframe render these ambitions as the stuff of indulgent R&D rather than a worthy investment pursuit.

As Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik commented last June, “Level 5 is a bit of a myth. Level 5 means you can drive anything anywhere in any weather conditions, like, you can drive from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile, any time of year, just press a button. This is probably never going to happen. Humans don’t even do this.”

To date, Waymo have raised $3 billion in its first external funding round and is understood to have consumed equivalent sums courtesy of the deep pockets of its parent company. To show for its efforts, the company operates a 500-strong fleet of robotaxis in the Metro Phoenix area in Arizona, Mountain View, California and a number of other locations in the US. The maths is crude, but the amortised cost per vehicle of a sum approaching $6m is the clearest indicator that the creation of a market for private ownership of self-driving cars even in the medium term is about as likely as mass space tourism.

The Waymo robotaxis operate at a peg below completely capable robot driving (otherwise termed ‘Level 4’), but still require a human safety driver in every vehicle until the tech is fully validated. One of the primary commercial motivations of removing costly human resource from the overhead of running passenger or delivery services is, therefore, as yet unrealisable. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the FT’s Alphaville suggest that even an ‘automated hive of driverless taxis would actually be more expensive for a consumer to use than the old-world way of owning four wheels.’ It would seem as if this high profile enterprise is not, therefore, focused on meaningful commercial viability.

One of the consequences of a pool of large, well-financed pre-profit autonomous mobility tech companies on the West Coast of the US is the significant distortion of the autonomous mobility market. Capital is inefficiently allocated, expectations of commercial and technical potential are overstated and the cost of key resource, such as the supply of capable R&D engineers, is inflated because these substantial and influential companies are in pursuit of R&D objectives rather commercial imperatives.

As far away as the other side of the Atlantic, the ‘skew’ created by these autonomy behemoths is keenly felt. StreetDrone, a leading full-stack autonomous software & vehicle company in the UK, faces a continuous battle to re-set investor perspectives on more realistic opportunities than Waymo’s moonshot ambitions.


Services, Not Products

“Waymo has been responsible in part for creating a powerful notion that we’ll all have self-driving cars parked on our driveways in a few years,” says StreetDrone’s CEO, Mike Potts. “There is no precedent in the history of humanity for tech that costs upwards of five million dollars to be progressively commoditised to reach the point of affordability of an average car.” He continues, “The problem is fundamentally misconstruing the purpose of an enabling technology. Its purpose is not to refine a product such as a car that has no need of a driver, its purpose is to deliver services. The step that makes a ‘service’ (rather than a self-driving product) viable is the removal of the safety driver from any autonomous vehicle to drastically reduce its operating overheads. That progress will get an investor a whole leap closer to something with dependable yield potential.”

But the ambition to dispense with the costs of the safety drivers who currently oversee the operation of all robotaxis in downtown Phoenix is something Waymo holds in common with StreetDrone. So the first investment canon is clear — focus on service opportunities, not products. But how does a service become viable if a human driver is needed to oversee the safe operation of expensive technology?


Less Pieces in the Jigsaw Puzzle

The solution to making autonomous technology commercially viable is to deploy in near-field applications that can be realised and scaled soon, pushing driverless vehicles up the technology readiness index. Not only does a near-field approach eradicate many of the liabilities of deep-tech investment, but it provides a solution to scale as its dependence on capital is reduced. So what essential components of near-field solutions should investors be looking out for?

One of the primary drivers of cost and extending R&D timelines in autonomous technology is speed. As StreetDrone explain, the technology costs per 1km/h over a threshold of 32km/h sends the engineering curve into an exponential increase in complexity. So keeping autonomous solutions slow is critical. Low speed means far less tech and a quicker route to removing the safety driver from the loop. As soon as this principle of slow-speed autonomy is enshrined, suddenly the rest of the jigsaw puzzle — now made up of less pieces, begins to fall into focus.

Having determined that twenty is plenty, the application of autonomous solutions takes shape. People, on the whole, are not given to travelling slowly, (except perhaps in cities where smart driverless cars do have the potential to overcome the traffic management inefficiencies that cause congestion) which immediately pre-disposes commercial applications towards delivery services. Average last-mile delivery speeds are, in any case, already slow due to structural factors such as urban speed limits and the stop-start delays caused by drivers dropping to the doorstep.

The insight that slow-speed applications such as contactless pharmaceutical deliveries, grocery drops or automated provision of municipal services such as street sweeping and refuse collection are the way ahead is not necessarily revolutionary, but the watchword for investment value are use cases that can operate at low speed, can scale and are viable in a defined operational design domain, or ODD. The ODD defines the complete operating parameters for an autonomous application. More sensors, more hardware redundancy and more code may be required to ensure safe operation of autonomous applications in bad weather, or in complex environments, so the less jigsaw pieces the ODD requires, the closer commercial viability will be.


Let’s Play Leapfrog

StreetDrone’s approach presents an interesting investment alternative to the $$$b dollar R&D enterprises on the West Coast. At every turn, they pursue methods of reducing cost — for instance, adopting open-source as an approach to reducing software costs or subscription payments for services to defray large capital outlays for customers. All of these initiatives aid the commercial viability case and thus the route to scaling the use of driverless solutions. In itself, however, these may not be enough to drive an investable proposition.

So the final part of the StreetDrone playbook which provides a useful insight for investors is the partnership model the company is now adopting. This has the scope to provide clearly definable revenue streams and shift the technology risk from the autonomous service providers to the service users.

“We have been very successful in the R&D market, but this is very finite. Our approach for growth been therefore the pursuit of ambitious partners who need a driverless service that saves costs over manned delivery – and we provide the wheels for that ambition,” Potts says. “And don’t look in the obvious places. For instance, many grocery retailers and supermarkets in the UK have manned delivery services. But there are a substantial number who do not, and their business vulnerability has been exposed by the pandemic. An automated, slow speed, neighbourhood delivery service provides these retailers with an opportunity to not just catch up with the competition, but at a stroke, to leapfrog them by removing all of the overheads associated with manned deliveries.”


Smart Isn’t Sufficient

Smart engineering is essential – but not enough on its own to build a credible prospectus for investors considering driverless tech options. To create a robust investment opportunity, it pays dividends to steer away from over-ambitious moonshots especially when the technology ambitions are well ahead of the business case. Autonomy to solve simple problems slowly and limited ODDs to provide a service that is scalable in the near term is the price of entry for portfolio consideration. But to be a surefire opportunity, robust partnerships with multiples, retailers and municipal authorities in need of a strategic point of difference needs to be in evidence.

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

(First published in The Engineer, August 9, 2021)

If FCEVs and BEVs are to replace ICE vehicles (ICEVs), then it is important to establish that they are truly beneficial overall and reduce negative impacts in a broad range of contexts from ecosystems to human health to demand on natural resources. With future regulations expected to focus on a more holistic view of product life, HORIBA MIRA’s Advanced Energy Research Scientist, Adam Zucconi, considers the debate in more detail.

To best understand the overall impact of both classes of vehicle, life cycle analysis (LCA) is applied. This is a complex process of quantifying a product’s impact from the extraction and refinement of raw materials to the manufacture of components, the assembly process, the production and consumption of energy throughout the operational phase, and finally, the end-of-life phase, varying from disposal to reuse or recycling.

There are several drivers supporting the use of LCA. The European Commission has released a new ‘Circular Economy Action Plan’ that connects product design to end-of-life to promote a circular economy. For instance, it promotes a framework for battery manufacturing that demands sustainability and transparency requirements to span the carbon footprint of manufacturing, the ethical sourcing of raw materials and the reuse, repurposing and recycling of used batteries.

During the manufacturing stage FCEVs and BEVs produce up to two times the amount of greenhouse gases compared to ICEVs

LCA is a topic of great interest to HORIBA MIRA in order to provide guidance on the development of appropriate standards and to support the industry in designing vehicles that reduce negative environmental impacts and adhere to any new regulations.

HORIBA MIRA recently conducted a review of life cycle analyses utilising a wide variety of data, models, and databases to assess the impact of FCEVs and BEVs. The high level impact areas of interest were climate change, human health, ecosystems, and natural resources, which are quantified using metrics including greenhouse gas emissions (kg CO2 eq), human toxicity potential (kg dichlorobenzenes eq), acidification (kg SO2 eq), abiotic depletion (MJ), etc. Careful attention was also paid to the system boundary definitions and life cycle inventories, both of which have substantial impacts on the results.

LCA identified that during the manufacturing stage FCEVs and BEVs produce up to two times the amount of greenhouse gases compared to ICEVs. In FCEVs, this is predominantly caused by the platinum extraction and processing for the fuel cell stack, as well as the energy consumed in carbon fibre production in components such as hydrogen storage tanks. In BEVs, the battery cell manufacture has the most significant impact. The LCA also demonstrated that for both human health and resource depletion concerns, FCEVs and BEVs also perform worse than ICEVs. For EVs, if the manufacturing and assembly process uses low-carbon energy, the impact significantly decreases.

Crucially, the operational phase, which includes the distribution and consumption of fuel, is where FCEVs and BEVs have the greatest potential advantage over ICEVs. The lack of local exhaust emissions and significantly higher efficiencies compared to ICEVs are paramount to this. However, this advantage can only be achieved using low-carbon and/or renewable energy. The length of vehicle life is also crucial, as sufficient time is required to overcome the higher manufacturing impacts of electric vehicles.

In terms of climate consideration, FCEVs can deliver reductions up to 85% in greenhouse gases, while BEVs can achieve reductions up to 95% over comparable ICEVs. The main factors impacting these benefits are the hydrogen production method – where compression is favoured over liquefaction – and the use of low-carbon and/or renewable electricity e.g. nuclear, wind or hydro generation. One study suggests that if coal was substituted for clean electricity generation for BEVs, their total impact would be approximately four times worse than the equivalent ICEVs.

End-of-life for FCEVs and BEVs provides an opportunity for abatement of impacts through the reuse of materials, where the use of renewable and low carbon energy to manage these processes is key. FCEVs have good recyclability potential (around 90%), while figures vary – between 50-90% – for BEVs, with current technology at the lower end.

From HORBA MIRA’s analysis of available data, the answer to this important question of whether EVs are actually beneficial to the environment throughout their life cycle is ‘yes, providing certain conditions are met’.

These conditions include a sufficient proportion of renewable or low-carbon energy used throughout the entirety of the life cycle; for FCEVs, hydrogen should be compressed, as liquefaction is too inefficient; the vehicle lifetime needs to be sufficiently long to overcome the significant impact of the manufacturing process, which outweighs today’s ICE vehicles.

With the expectation that legislation will move towards a circular economy and a more holistic view of product life, and discussion still open about what those standards could be, HORIBA MIRA is in a position to guide and support the development of these standards, as well as provide consultancy to businesses creating products and services in line with LCA requirements. This could be for the entirety of a vehicle, or focused on specific components that have a particularly negative impact.

Platooning – Making Space to Drive?

The number of electric vehicles on UK roads is expected to hit 25 million by 2035; an increase that will significantly exacerbate congestion. While political solutions are being sought to contend with this predicted rise, platooning technology for passenger vehicles has the potential to improve motorway utilisation and make significant vehicle energy savings, which have been conservatively estimated at between four and ten per cent.

To keep pace with government carbon reduction plans and electric vehicle (EV) deployment targets, it is anticipated that the number of EVs on UK roads could increase from 100,000 today to three million by 2025, soaring to 25 million by 2035.

These figures have been outlined in a paper by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which goes on to suggest that the lower taxes and reduced running costs compared to ICE vehicles will encourage more use of private cars and more road miles to be driven by motorists. Consequently, congestion is set to rapidly worsen, and the time wasted while stuck in traffic is at the same time predicted to rise by up to 50%.

The suggested solution is to reform taxes and shift to a road pricing methodology, yet Innovate UK’s Transport Vision 2050 report indicates that this could take as long as 2040 to introduce. Even with tax reform to discourage unnecessary road travel, population growth means that congestion will remain a significant issue for the foreseeable future, resulting in lost productivity and reduced quality of life.

As a result, other solutions are needed to help ease congestion, increase road utilisation and improve traffic efficiency, regardless of political changes. Platooning is one such a solution. While platooning has been on the horizon for some time, the technology typically focuses on commercial vehicle applications. Yet the development of such solutions for passenger cars has the potential to be ground-breaking, with the benefits significant and wide-reaching.  Platooning optimises the flow of traffic streams, allows shorter distances between vehicles while still ensuring safe operation, and prevents ‘perturbations’ – the phenomenon of waves of braking and acceleration that transmit through manually controlled, high density traffic. It enhances passenger comfort, increases vehicle efficiency, lowers emissions and improves utilisation of the existing road infrastructure, which in turn reduces the need for new road building to accommodate the anticipated rise in traffic levels.

Cooperative positioning between platooned cars, comprising advances in ranging and vehicle communications, along with algorithms developed to ensure data integrity, enabled by a variety of range-finding sensors, with the resulting data communicated between vehicles via low latency communication protocols. The development of algorithms to ensure data integrity – and required to authorise the positioning of platooning vehicles – will be hugely significant to such solutions.

While there are a great many factors that influence traffic density on any given road – from weather conditions to highway design, platooning on main arterial routes has the potential to increase capacity compared to manual driving, while improving vehicle efficiency and energy consumption, and simultaneously improving passenger comfort.