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Skilling Engineers for a Low Carbon World

Skilling Engineers for a Low Carbon World

By Dr Antony Allen and Dr Valentina Donzella

WMG Associate Professors

Images of clear skies over Mumbai – a city usually shrouded in toxic smog – have become among the most memorable of 2020. This improvement in urban air quality may only be temporary, sparked by the coronavirus lockdown forcing people to drive less. But the pictures serve as a stark reminder of the polluting effects of cars which spew out carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.

This vision and others from the pandemic of a cleaner world will heap additional pressure on the automotive industry worldwide to invest in sustainable environmentally-friendly transport solutions.

The physical and economic burden of health issues triggered by environmental factors are already well documented. A report published last year by the British Heart Foundation found that breathing the air in some areas of London is as harmful as smoking 150 cigarettes a year.

The World Health Organisation warns that an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.

Passenger cars are a major contributor to this death toll, accounting for more than 60% of total CO2 emissions from road transport in Europe alone. In a bid to reduce this impact, the UK in line with other major global economies will ban new petrol and diesel car sales and most hybrid ones from 2035. This is part of its target set in June last year of becoming a ‘net zero’ emitter by 2050 – achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and those removed from the atmosphere.

Yet the automotive sector is already struggling to meet these and other strict regulations drawn up by countries. Figures released by the EU Environment Agency this June suggest progress is not heading in the right direction. The average CO2 emissions from the new passenger car fleet in the EU in 2018 were 120.8g CO2/km, an increase of 2.3g CO2/km compared to 2017. That puts the fleet average significantly above an EU-wide target of 95g CO2 that comes into effect at the end of 2020.

Doing away with passenger vehicles altogether is not a solution. Four wheels represent necessity when more people in a household are commuting – often in different directions. Even a rise in home-working triggered by Covid-19 cannot detract from the fact individuals will always need to travel individually – and that involves road transport.

Which is good news for the automotive industry. But it still means they have to develop alternatives which meet consumer expectations for vehicle quality, reliability, safety and performance as well as new environmental benchmarks.

And this must happen fast in order for the sector to survive. Only by adapting their products to make them will manufacturers be able to continue to sell their cars and prevent job losses.

Electric vehicles increasingly appear to offer the most feasible, cost-effective and practical solution. So do autonomous cars which could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 44 percent for passenger vehicles and 18 percent for trucks, according to a new study released by the Energy Information Administration. The market size of self-driving cars and trucks is already anticipated to expand globally at a compound annual growth rate of more than 63% from 2021 to 2030.

automotive electrification

Many challenges lie ahead though before these technologies can be regarded as firmly on route to long-term carbon neutral success.

Investment in seemingly ‘clean’ transport systems is pointless if they are charged from a fossil-fuel-powered grid. Or if the lithium for the rechargeable battery has to be transported from a Bolivian mine through various globally distributed stages of processing and manufacture thereby creating a high carbon footprint. Any environmental savings would be cancelled out. Range anxiety is another barrier to drivers adopting the technology and necessitates a major shift in electrical infrastructure and integration requirements.

Consumer confidence is also a hurdle to be overcome for full deployment of self-driving vehicles. The public needs reassurance before it is comfortable with relinquishing total control to these machines. In addition, any eco benefits from autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles must be negated by a rise in car use triggered by uptake from previously excluded individuals, such as those with dementia.

Success also depends on a readily available workforce. One with a high level of competency in these emerging technologies in order to adapt and survive in a low-CO2 future.

However, engineers trained to work on sustainable transport solutions such as high voltage electrical systems are in short supply. According to the 2019 IET Skills and Demand in Industry report, three in five employers say the recruitment of engineering and technical staff with the right skills is the biggest anticipated barrier to achieving business objectives over the next three years.

Nearly half (48%) report difficulties in respect of the skills available in the external labour market when trying to recruit. There is an estimated annual shortfall of 59,000 new engineering graduates and technicians, according to the findings.

WMG, University of Warwick, is at the forefront of high-level research and application of ideas to address these and other issues around low carbon automotive technology.

It has been instrumental in filling the knowledge gaps of workers employed by major manufacturers such as Ford and Jaguar Land Rover through its MScs in Sustainable Automotive Electrification (SAE) and Smart, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (SCAV) programmes. This is in parallel with teaching graduates about the latest technologies in collaboration with industry.

WMG is committed to creating the next generation of automotive research managers and technology leaders with the skills, technical awareness and vision to help drive the future of new energy efficient vehicles. Keeping material current is essential in such a dynamic field as sustainable vehicle manufacture, and tutors ensure the course programme is refreshed annually.

Directly aligned with the industry technology roadmaps, both the SAE and SCAV programmes are tailored to address the questions companies are facing right now and in the future. These dilemmas include how to develop an infrastructure that is robust enough to bring vehicles to market.

Through the taught modules, students get to focus on the practical aspects of design and manufacturing. On putting science into action whereby thousands of cars roll off the production line, not just one demonstrator. While supervised by academics, learning throughout both courses is hands-on and research-led, with student projects are linked to industry and research projects in and around WMG. Through direct contact with experts, students can get instant and up-to-date answers to their questions.

Launching in its revised form in Oct 2020, the SAE MSc is designed to follow the development cycle of a new automotive product. Modules begin by introducing stakeholder requirements such as customer needs and legislation. They then progress from whole vehicle design at the customer attribute level through to system, subsystem and component design and manufacture. Later specialist elective modules drill down to aspects such as electric machine design and battery electrochemistry.

No other course in the UK gives students the experience of building an automotive grade lithium-ion battery cell from the raw elements in WMG’s world leading Energy and Innovation Centre. WMG has been instrumental in supporting the development of cheaper, higher energy density, safer batteries through this pioneering £50m research laboratory.

Opened in 2016, the battery research lab provides knowledge in energy storage, energy management and complex electrical systems. It works with a variety of industrial partners from automotive manufacturers to aerospace companies. Invaluable experience is also gained in WMG’s Vehicle Energy Facility where students get to test electric traction motors and inverters.

Like their electric ‘cousins’, autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles pose a huge developmental change for the industry.

On one hand, the smart systems underpinning the evolution of their technology, such as sensors and artificial intelligence (AI), could radically reduce pollution. By predicting ahead instead of relying on human instinct to navigate, these smart vehicles could avoid burning fuel needlessly in traffic jams. With the number of cars on the road globally forecast to double from 1.1 billion to 2 billion in the next 15 years, this would be of major benefit for manufacturers in meeting emission targets.

On the other hand, the more complex a system, the more the scope for failure although a proper engineering design process would manage these risks.

Other dilemmas facing the industry include the fact the speed of autonomous cars which may be safe but is it comfortable for passengers? Will cyber security be a threat given the reliance of autonomous vehicles on communication systems? How quickly can societies define the ‘rules of the game’ by designing and delivering the necessary protocols? How can we ensure thorough testing and validation to demonstrate driverless cars reduce road fatalities?

All these questions and more are addressed by the SCAV MSc. The course provides students with a comprehensive understanding of the systems behind smart vehicles such as how algorithms can do the job of a human driver but with greater accuracy, cyber-security protocols, data transfer, and vehicle safety including interaction with the driver/passengers such as monitoring if they have fallen asleep or are intoxicated.

As with WMG’s SAE MSc, the SCAV course is backed up with extensive industrial support provided by an industry advisory board with representation from the entire industry including global manufacturers and start-ups. Project and teaching support for SCAV is also provided from other companies and organisations including Konrad Technologies, ON semiconductor and Oxfordshire City Council. This is yet another example of how the courses are industry led and research focused.

At the heart of the SCAV course learning are the university’s extensive labs where the behaviour of autonomous vehicles can be rigorously tested. These unique experimental facilities enable academics, industry practitioners and students to work together.

They include WMG’s 3xD simulator – which won gold at the National Instruments Engineering Impact awards in 2018 – replicates real-life driving conditions to test performance and safety. This innovative platform bridges the gap between traditional simulation, hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) and road-based field tests.

Housed in a Faraday cage that can accommodate a full vehicle, the simulator provides a real-time visual driving experience in a safe, controlled, and repeatable physical environment where external radiofrequency signals are blocked. This enables WMG researchers to make the car ‘believe’ it is anywhere in the world and test its ability to navigate any road junction on earth via GPS. The simulator enables autonomous vehicles to drive around in a virtual environment to accelerate testing before they are road ready. If the car crashes, it occurs in a controlled environment instead of on a public road.

Then there is the £150m National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC), one of the largest of its kind in Europe and home to researchers, engineers and designers from Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors. Opened by the Prince of Wales in February this year, the NAIC creates and develops novel technologies to reduce fossil fuel dependency and CO2 emissions, and helps to foster a stronger supplier base in the UK.

WMG have also begun work on a £2.7 million UK government funded project to create a highly accurate virtual reality simulator environment. Connected and autonomous vehicles can be tested in an environment featuring AI-trained models of pedestrians and road users as part of a programme involving a consortium of 11 organisations led by Latent Logic in Oxford. Students will benefit from the facilities, take case studies from research projects and interact with researchers and project partners.

Given the already huge investment and need for this technology, there is no doubt it will become a reality. The future of mobility depends on the next generation of vehicles being emission-free.

What is also without question is that WMG graduates will play a major role in this vision being realised.

And that will mean many more cities around the world could benefit from pollution-free skies and the planet from cessation of global warming and significantly lower road transport deaths.