Carmakers are announcing the phasing out of ICE models, while the government is scrambling to implement effective policy on emissions. Providing critical support across these efforts is the Advanced Propulsion Centre. Hannah Wright speaks to chief executive Ian Constance, to discuss what appears to be a decisive decade for UK automotive

In March this year, the British government pledged £30m in funding to research in battery technology, the electric vehicle supply chain and hydrogen vehicles. Of this sum, £9.4m will go towards 22 studies led by the Automotive Transformation Fund.

More specifically, the latest round of studies funded through the Automotive Transformation Fund will include investigations into hydrogen storage for vehicles, and the production of low carbon lithium hydroxide. Such research is crucial if the UK is to meet its ambitious target of phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

The Automotive Transformation Fund is a long-term programme led by the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), designed to enable the UK to build the world’s most comprehensive and compelling electrified vehicle supply chain.

Motor Finance Online spoke to Ian Constance, chief executive of the APC, about the two most prominent forms of clean propulsion technologies – hydrogen fuel cells (FCEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV).

Firstly, what exactly is the Advanced Propulsion Centre?

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The APC manages the funding that the UK Government and automotive industry have pledged towards the research and development of clean propulsion technologies such as electric models or hydrogen power. It also provides insight to support those making decisions about future strategy – be that politicians, innovators, or manufacturers.

Since its foundation in 2013, the APC has funded 150 low-carbon projects involving 375 partners, working with companies of all sizes, and has helped to establish over 50,000 UK jobs. The technologies developed in these projects are projected to save over 260 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of removing the lifetime emissions from 10.2 million cars.

Electric vehicles seem to dominate the public narrative concerning the governments Road to Zero strategy. What role does hydrogen have to play in the transition?

It’s not a one-or-the-other situation. BEVs and FCEV vehicles both have merits and challenges. On behalf of the UK Automotive Council, and in collaboration with industry and academia, we produced product and technology roadmaps to support the automotive industry, policy makers and technology developers.

These are used both in the UK and internationally when making decisions about what the future might look like, and these point to us needing a mix of these technologies if we are going to meet our net-zero targets. For example, hydrogen solves some of the challenges around distance, weight or size of vehicle and quick refuelling, which is why it lends itself well to freight, agricultural, marine and potentially aerospace applications.

That’s not to say that is its only purpose, or indeed that batteries don’t also have a place in these industries. The important thing from a UK perspective is that we are really well placed with pioneering research, manufacturing capability, a leading chemical sector and existing supply chain. What we need is the right environment to encourage further investment and I like to think our work plays a key part in that.

What is the current level of progress for hydrogen technology in the UK Automotive Industry?

It’s probably more than you would imagine. In total the APC currently oversees 19 fuel cell and hydrogen projects with investments totalling close to £70m. These range across sectors from passenger cars, buses, off-highway vehicles and motorbikes.

There are already hydrogen cars on UK roads, and hydrogen-fuelled buses carrying passengers in London, Northern Ireland and Aberdeen. Our work spans from small enterprises to large global businesses on projects from product development to major capital investment, all with clear environmental and economic aims.

The UK is in a really good position to be a leading player in both FCEV and BEV. We have world-leading academic research, a strong chemical and minerals supply chain to manufacture some of the components needed for net-zero technology and an established motor industry supply chain that could be transitioned from supplying parts for combustion engines to fuel cells.

What are the key challenges for advancing hydrogen technology?

Hydrogen technology is not as established as battery electric from a consumer perspective, and this means the cost of the vehicles can be prohibitive.

Challenges remain around refuelling infrastructure, and the availability and generation of hydrogen –these require the right energy policy and market appetite to resolve. Most of the solutions require more investment.

Using hydrogen in a fuel cell is incredibly clean, with the only by-product being water, so is definitely seen by manufacturers as having a key part to play. We’re currently working with names such as Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and others on a number of fuel cell initiatives.

China, Japan and South Korea are leading the way, but we don’t see this as a competition. We have skills, expertise and capability in the UK that companies from overseas want to use and invest in – that’s another part of what we do at APC: demonstrate to the world the value the UK brings to the clean tech sector.

How can UK Automotive stay ahead of global competition?

With the right levels of investment, the UK has the skills and expertise to be a world leader in net-zero technology but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in competition with the rest of the world – it puts us in a position to do business with the rest of the world.

For example, one of the projects we oversee is a collaboration between an UK-based company called Intelligent Energy and Changan UK, one of China’s largest car makers, other projects involve up-scaling the UK manufacturing of components needed in net-zero technology that will be used in propulsion systems globally.

Our Automotive Transformation Fund is a long-term programme to enable UK-based manufacturers to serve global markets and is a join initiative between the department for Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for International Trade (DIT), APC and Innovate UK.

All of our projects need to evidence that they reduce emissions and will safeguard or create new jobs in the UK and ensure the UK remains competitive in the research, development and production of low carbon propulsion technologies.

What is the government’s role in all of this?

APC exists because of a joint venture between the UK Government and the automotive industry to invest in net-zero technology, to safeguard or create jobs, and reduce carbon emissions. It’s a brilliant example of industry and government collaborating to support UK innovation and expertise.

We’ve already seen strong policy commitments to reducing greenhouse emissions and we expect to see more detail when the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and Hydrogen Strategy are published later this year.