CAR tech: Britain's £1bn auto-industry revolution

Published: 21 October 2013

BMW, Jaguar-Land Rover and Nissan are just a handul of the car companies to have seen the potential in British design and engineering. Read on to find out just how they're actually helping Britian fight Germany as the car world's most pivotal auto-industry R&D hub.

More than £1billion will be invested in the UK over the next decade to build a hub of design, engineering and manufacturing nous in the automotive equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley. The ‘Advanced Propulsion Centre’ (APC) will push innovation in fuel cells, electric and internal combustion engines to keep Britain at car technology’s leading edge.

The British auto industry already encompasses seven big car factories and more than 2300 suppliers, and has a typical annual turnover of £55bn. Yet rival Germany is the undisputed pin-up of the automotive industry, with an enviable performance despite challenges such as relatively high wages.

The APC, which is supported by the government’s innovation agency the Technology Strategy Board, will ensure that the UK can match what Herr Engineer is doing by bringing together car companies and  suppliers to collaborate and share know-how, as well as create top training facilities. ‘Germany has three or four-long-standing premium car players,’ says Jaguar-Land Rover’s Mike Wright. ‘They have a working relationship with academia – that’s the sort of thing we’re talking about with the APC.’

Who's already involved in the UK's Advanced Propulsion Centre?

JLR is one of 27 companies that have signed up to the innovation hub, alongside the likes of BMW and Nissan and engineering suppliers Ricardo and GKN. Although the physical location is still to be determined, the APC will work as a fulcrum to turn innovations into production reality.

‘The APC will help differentiate the UK from its industrial competitors,’ says Richard Parry-Jones, the former Ford engineer who co-chairs the Automotive Council, a pro-industry body which will head the APC. ‘The government will put in half the money, the industry puts in the other half.’

Even for BMW, it’s crucial to have creative ideas and innovation in Great Britain, despite the immense depth of R&D in its homeland. ‘Who’s to say where the next big idea will come from?’ says BMW UK’s Jason Reakes. ‘For us, it’s not a question of either the UK or Germany – it’s a question of being active in all our key markets.’

‘We will still develop our own powertrains,’ adds JLR’s Wright, ‘but at the sharp end of research, innovation and new technologies, you need a syndicated approach. The APC gives us the opportunity to capitalise on these new, broader initiatives.’

The Automotive Council believes the APC will bolster the creative spirit among Britain’s engineers, and that the government cash will help bring more entrepreneurial ideas to fruition. Any country can bolt cars together, so creating advanced, proprietary technology here will be a compelling reason for factories to stay, and flourish.

‘This is the crux of the strategy,’ says JLR’s Wright. ‘If you’ve got all your R&D, the ‘product creation’ activities, based in the UK, the manufacturing decision is easier to make.’

What's the current state of the UK's motoring industry?

The UK car industry is a genuine success story, amid all the doom and gloom. ‘But our success will be short-lived if we don’t continue to innovate and remain competitive on a world-class basis,’ says Nissan’s vice president (and Brit) Andy Palmer. ‘We need to load the dice in our favour with more skills… which bring together the government and car companies.’ It’s already happening: Borg Warner, a US company supplying turbos to JLR, has set up a new factory and engineering centre in Yorkshire, as well as a university degree programme.

>> Click here to read CAR's review of the turbocharged Range Rover Sport

Through the APC, and the Automotive Council’s wider brief, such collaborations ensure that the capacity to manufacture a variety of innovative technologies exists in the UK, meaning faster, more cost-effective product development and, for the consumer, wider choice and shorter waits for parts and options. ‘It’s going to help develop the best people in the world, and keep the bright people here,’ says Wright.

The benefits extend beyond the auto industry, boosting the UK economy as a whole and making it an attractive place to do business. This global legitimacy influenced BMW’s decision to launch the electric i3 in London, Europe’s only mega-city. ‘This is where we think the UK could be a real test bed, a beacon and a training centre,’ BMW’s Reakes says. ‘It’s a market where it’s valuable to engage with the latest trends in order to monitor them, but also shape them.’

The APC’s success will be measured over the next ten years by the number of jobs and business it secures. It’s forecast to create 30,000 jobs, including 7600 apprenticeships and 1700 graduates, by 2023. A laudable aim, but absolutely critical too. ‘We need to have bodies like the APC so that the success can continue for the long-term.’ It’s about safeguarding and developing Britain’s car industry – and creating technologies that could make us the engine room of the world once more.

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