Speed to Scale: Driving a sustainable and connected future for transport

University of Warwick

When the world reflects on 2020 most will remember a time synonymous with global disruption. What I hope is that we also remember it as the year society chose to turn a corner. Covid-19 has forced us to make changes in a matter of months, which we thought could take decades – some positive, like cycling and virtual business meetings. But it has also damaged industries like automotive and aerospace, costing thousands of jobs in the region.

As we rebuild, we have the opportunity to focus on a different future. Our actions over the next three to five years can be aligned to a 20 to 30-year vision, which delivers better air quality, zero net carbon emissions, healthier lifestyles, profitable industries and high quality employment. The transport sector plays a central role in improving our environmental and economic future.

Sustainability and achieving “Net Zero”

The UK Government’s ‘Road to Zero’ strategy sets out a pathway for decarbonising transport and consultation is underway regarding banning the sale of new non-electric cars, including petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035. This is possible but will not be easy or cheap.

The vision is also to look at lifecycle emissions of vehicles – driving material, energy and cost out of the manufacturing processes (especially for batteries), improving vehicle durability, and reducing the carbon content of the electricity used to charge them.

Sustainable planning around recycling a battery once its prime lifespan in an electric vehicle ends is equally important. After around eight to twelve years, the battery in a vehicle has reached its full potential. However, batteries often retain up to 80% of their energy after this automotive “lifespan”, meaning they could be recycled or suitable for ‘second-life’ usages, such as stationary domestic or industrial energy storage. The challenge is to produce batteries that complement this recycling process, rather than hinder it.

Evolutions in behaviour

Even if sustainability through electrification and micro-mobility is technically achievable at scale, it assumes people will adapt their routines in ways we predict. This may not be the case, and research is required to understand public behaviours or we will either fail to realise the benefits we seek, or we could see unintended consequences such as an increase in injuries through road traffic accidents.

Concerns about charging times and range are barriers to buying an electric vehicle. If we are to achieve widespread adoption, public charging will be a necessity. But it’s not just about individual usage, solutions are also required for fleets of vehicles that have no time to stop. It’s unrealistic to imagine a world where a taxi isn’t available at the click of a button, or where emergency vehicles stop to charge, and so the technical measures need to be in place to ensure batteries last long enough, or superfast charging is easily accessible – including wireless charging where frequent plugging in is not practical.   

Getting the infrastructure right

To implement the technology we will need an electricity infrastructure and distribution network that can cope with high levels of vehicle charging across a variety of locations. 

A sustainable system would be one where we could repurpose surplus energy storage capacity. This is being explored by a WMG research team, looking at the possibility of accessing the energy stored in electric vehicles when they are not in use – either by co-ordination of charging behaviour or returning energy from the battery to the grid.

As we look at growing our “cycle lane” network we have a unique opportunity to plan how this could be used for a variety of low carbon transport solutions – taking light vehicles out of the path of cars and trucks and providing a safe alternative to car usage that reduces issues of emissions, congestion and parking.

A connected and interlinked future for transport

We don’t just ponder these alternatives – we take our part in delivering them. Examples include:

Coventry Very Light RailBy using a lightweight vehicle, the Coventry Very Light Rail (VLR) project, led by Coventry City Council (CCC) in collaboration with WMG, can use a track system that sits on concrete “rafts” rather than requiring expensive deep excavations, which disturb services like water, electricity and sewers sitting below the city surface.

The University of Birmingham’s HydroFLEX project is also a great example of what can be achieved by combining academic research, expertise and private sector know-how. The ground-breaking partnership between the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education and railway rolling stock company, Porterbrook is a UK first. Its aim is to demonstrate how hydrogen could be deployed across the rail network to offer a cleaner alternative to current diesel trains.

The project involves the conversion of an existing Class 319 train, fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell, giving it the ability to run autonomously on hydrogen power on non-electrified routes. Funding for mainline testing was secured and is due to commence in 2020.

Deliver-E - A compact, quiet, lightweight electric L-Cat delivery vehicle prototype developed by WMG with Astheimer Ltd and responding to the “last mile” logistical demands of an online consumer market without damaging the environment.

Triumph TE-1 - WMG is bringing our electrification expertise and network of industrial partners to help Triumph deliver world-leading electric motorcycles – and to source their components and systems from the UK.

The Speed to Scale Region programme

Business-led innovation and innovation translation is needed to ensure that we make the right moves in the next three to five years. Leadership is essential to providing the evidence-base needed to inform transport policy, industrial investment and infrastructure investment as part of delivering a system optimised to be greater than the sum of its parts, which can be built on consistently over decades to come. The West Midlands “Speed to Scale Region” project aims to deliver this through an integrated partnership approach between academia and industry.

The programme introduces a Sustainable Multimodal Transport Hub for the West Midlands that comprises the knowledge, expertise and facilities of the University of Birmingham, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and WMG at the University of Warwick. Driving business-led innovation, the programme embeds a partnership approach with OEMs, start-ups and supply chains to reinvent the West Midlands as the scale-up region of the UK. One of the key ways this will be achieved is by focusing on low-emission urban mobility through electrification and micro-mobility solutions. 

If we are to deliver economic growth for the UK and the West Midlands, it will be essential to develop connected, green solutions across multiple modes of travel – from trains, planes and cars to boats, bikes and scooters.

The dissemination of regional project successes will also be essential if we are to successfully revolutionise behaviours and societal routines, whilst embedding new technologies and better ways to travel. The Speed to Scale programme focuses on achieving this impact through training, technology and innovation to develop new jobs, sectors and export opportunities within the next four years.

David Greenwood
Professor of Advanced Propulsion Systems – WMG
University of Warwick