UK automotive is in buoyant mood. With a new car rolling off the production line every twenty seconds, it’s an industry now worth nearly £70 billion a year, supporting up to 800,000 jobs across the country. Over the past decade, production, sales and exports have all soared by record levels helping UK PLC to become Europe’s fourth largest car producer.
But challenges lie ahead. Increased competition from overseas coupled with much tougher standards on carbon emissions are on the horizon.
If the sector is to continue to thrive, some quick, innovative thinking is required. We need new solutions to develop low emission and electric vehicles, along with a radical rethink in how we upskill our current and future workforces in order to respond to emerging market requirements.
A catalyst for sustainable future growth
Our vision is that the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) will nurture a new generation of advanced automotive engineers, each equipped with high-value skills that can propel our industry forward.
The proposed 11,000 square metre facility, to be built at the Bristol & Bath Science Park, will be a space where the world’s best engineers can work hand-in-hand with industry and Small & Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) on critical, collaborative research.
It’s a proposal that’s been 40 years in the making and one which is underpinned by the huge successes of our Department of Mechanical Engineering and its powertrain technology research centre. Thanks to long-standing partnerships with major companies, we’ve helped to bring low-carbon engines to the mass market and improved turbo-charging to get better fuel economy.
Over four decades, we have worked on nearly 100 projects and our current research project portfolio has a total project value of more than £40 million. Last year, we were recognised as a Spoke of the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre with a focus on Internal Combustion Engines – Systems Efficiency.
At Bath, we currently have 20 active projects all broadly in the powertrain systems area. They stretch from highly downsized gasoline engines through to range extenders for electric vehicles
Downsizing, electrification and hybridisation
Our focus on downsizing is what makes us unique; there are no other similar-sized institutes conducting similar work. But it’s the shift to electrification and hybridisation which will set Bath and IAAPS apart in the years to come.
According to Chris Brace, Professor of Automotive Propulsion, a number of big car companies have set ambitious targets to have nearly all of their fleet electric in the next few decades.
“But whereas some, like Tesla, are at the vanguard, others will need to deliver pragmatic solutions to electrification which can become every day and also cost-effective”, he said.
“For the vast majority, some degree of hybridisation which uses a downsized internal combustion engine seems most likely to be required.
“Most buyers aren’t evangelical about technology. If they are paying out a lot of money on a new car they want the one they are buying to be just as good if not better than the one they’ve just sold. So it’s about striking a balance between costs and environmental requirements.”
Our researchers are currently working with Tata Motors in developing auxiliary power units for range-extended vehicles to bring about practical solutions to help achieve this over the next five years.
In partnership with industry to tackle emerging challenges
From downsizing to electrification, Bath’s success in advanced propulsion systems owes much of its success to its close links to industry.
“Sometimes industry partnerships happen because we know them and they know the areas we’re working in”, Professor Brace said.
“Sometimes we have a proposal and will go and pitch it to industry collaborators we know might be interested. Other times it’s a combination, and industry will come to us to act as a facilitator as we can bring other partners in.
“The main thing you have to do is develop some expertise that people are interested in and then get out and get your research known.
“Our SMEs are a significant source of innovation, but they often can’t get beyond that to generate impact. We can help them with that. Through IAAPS we need to provide the opportunity for more of that to happen.”
His colleague, Dr Sam Akehurst, Reader in Automotive Engineering, adds: “For most SMEs they are developing products that they want to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to adopt. But to get from the prototype stage to the mass market there are a number of stages to get through.
“For them, we can be the system integrators. We understand the proposal and what industry partners need and we can provide the added value to help the process work.”
The next generation of automotive engineers
Another future challenge is the worrying and marked skills gap of advanced automotive engineers coming through the system.
IAAPS will build on our already well-established links with real-world industry to help address this.
Dr Akehurst, who heads up the current PhD offering at Bath, explains: “Compared to a lot of other universities, our PhDs get access to really relevant and often very challenging industrial problems rather than ‘academic problems’ per se.
“In terms of where they progress, we’ve seen excellent employment statistics with individuals working in senior positions with influential industry partners. IAAPS will be a scale-up of what we’re doing currently and there’s a huge appetite for this. We’re getting more requests from companies for training or upskilling – and that primarily is through a PhD.”
Many of our PhD and MSc students will move directly into employment with organisations that supported their research during their projects. 92 per cent of Bath alumni in mechanical engineering are in employment or further study six months after leaving us.
Scaled up at through IAAPS, this training model will be a win-win for UK automotive and for our students.
“It’s a truly exciting time to be involved in automotive research here at the University of Bath”, Professor Brace said.
“Our plans for IAAPS will dramatically help to push forward new research with the potential for significant impacts advances in the area of low vehicle emissions in the years ahead.”