Does the industry need to change its approach to electrification?

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Williams Advanced Engineering’s technical director, Paul McNamara, asks whether there should be more to an electrified future than just replacing combustion-engined vehicles with electrified versions.

Over the last decade there has been a rapid shift from owning vehicles outright to hire purchase or leasing. More ready access to credit is a key driver, but so too is the high investment required for automotive technology, which means the industry needs to recover costs across car sales.

The pressure to sell high volumes of new cars contrasts with the reliability and durability of new cars. In a world that’s focused on becoming more environmentally aware, it doesn’t feel like a particularly sustainable approach. But as we shift toward an electrified future and innovation drives improved performance, we’re in danger of the ‘throwaway culture’ becoming an even greater feature.

From a customer perspective, an EV’s practicality is dominated by its battery, the amount of energy it can store and how fast it can be recharged. The pace of technology evolution means that evermore advanced systems are coming to market all the time.

For example, after an initial three-year contract hire or PCP deal is up, a buyer will be presented with a whole range of new models to choose from, all of which are likely to have better performance. There is no incentive to hang on to what they have. This rate of turnover will flow down into the whole market, with the potential to create early obsolescence, and reverse the longevity trend for vehicles.

And that’s before even considering that batteries degrade over time. At the point that the battery can’t sustain an acceptable charge, the whole vehicle may have to be recycled, because its market value and usefulness have reduced.

But what if you could upgrade an EV’s onboard hardware, extending life and helping deliver improved performance? The ability to change batteries as a service action would go a long way to futureproofing vehicles and maintaining them in the market. This will also create the opportunity to upgrade an EV.

You can see from the development paths of the first mass-produced EVs how far battery technology has come. But imagine if you could upgrade your existing car? Having this option would assist consumers in making the switch to electric and provide confidence in vehicle resale value.

Once the ability to upgrade is established, then the same thinking can provide consumers with the ability to adapt their vehicles to better suit their needs. This could even extend to offering different battery options after they have made a first purchase of a vehicle and in doing so, enable sales of vehicles at different price points. However, for the car industry to deliver this type of flexibility, it will need to build in maintainability and upgradeability of hardware in the aftermarket as a key design feature.

The automotive industry has spoken extensively about platforms as the building block of an EV architecture. These rolling chassis can integrate a fully structural battery pack that enables subpacks to be added (or subtracted), giving consumers flexibility – and the vehicle a longer life. It’s an approach that is highly suited to EVs, as the core components of the powertrain – the electric motor and inverter – have long lifespans, and it addresses the primary life-limiting factor: the battery.

Investment in the products, facilities and business systems that can support a consumer’s desire to upgrade a battery’s performance during the car’s life will require further collaboration and a change to the way we have been used to dealing with ICE vehicles; a change that will unlock new possibilities for electric vehicle manufacturing, use and value creation in the aftermarket.

The industry talks a great deal about sustainability, but moving to an electrified future is more than just replacing combustion-engined vehicles with electrified versions. It requires a more holistic approach to how those vehicles are maintained after they leave the production line – and a culture shift in how cars are offered to consumers.

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About Author

Paul McNamara is technical director at Williams Advanced Engineering. Previously UK engineering director at Ricardo, McNamara has successfully worked on high-profile projects with Ford, Volvo and McLaren

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