Stephen Lambert, Head of Electrification, McLaren Applied & Chairman of the Automotive Electronics Systems Innovation Network (AESIN), highlights the technologies that are trickling down from motorsport and could soon revolutise consumer electric vehicles.
With the UK Government committing to banning the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030, the interest and investment in EV technologies is higher than ever. But if EVs are to replace traditional vehicles, a number of important hurdles must be overcome with regards to technology, materials and the supply chain. Innovation in motorsport gives us a strong indication of where EV technology is headed, and we will likely see technology first developed for the racetrack influence the performance-focused end of the consumer market.
If the UK is to be seen as the place to invest in future technologies, it is important to consider how supply chains and manufacturing capabilities are developing. So, in which areas do we need to see the technology and supporting infrastructure evolving most rapidly? And what can we learn from e-motorsports to realise our ambitions?
Access to technology
The automotive industry is working hard to scale up the production of batteries for a new era of electrification, but equal attention should be given to ensuring that UK manufacturers have secure access to other elements of an electric drivetrain. Technologies such as the inverter, the motor, the DC/DC converter, the charger and the charging network, will all be pivotal in ensuring the widespread transition to EVs.
The ability to deliver these high value technologies presents an opportunity to play to the UK’s strengths. There’s a multitude of technologies and components sitting within electrification that present a wealth of opportunities for UK businesses to lead the charge.
Introducing silicon carbide
Silicon carbide is a familiar technology in the semiconductor industry. The electrification of transportation presents new applications for it, especially given recent investment in creating a UK-based supply chain to ensure access to the material. The use of silicon carbide in EV inverters is crucial for increasing efficiencies in EV drivetrains. The right inverter allows for the optimisation of the drivetrain and an overall increase of system efficiency which equates to an extended range of between 5% and 10% on a single charge.
Silicon carbide technology is proving revolutionary for the EV scene, in terms of efficiency when compared to conventional inverters that are based on silicon semiconductors. It enables faster charging, higher speed motors and longer range. It produces less heat and is far less temperature-sensitive, meaning lower cooling demands. The small size makes it much more efficient for consumer EVs, where weight and volume are make-or-break factors. These kinds of benefits will be crucial in the development of consumer and commercial EVs that can compete with traditional vehicles.
The next-generation: the shift from 400V to 800V
Currently, the majority of EVs use 400V inverters. However, there is an inevitable shift to 800V architectures that deliver greater efficiency, faster charging and longer range. An 800V architecture enables faster charging which, alongside silicon carbide, can bring new levels of efficiency to consumer EVs. At present, most existing EV charging infrastructure is geared towards 400V vehicle architectures, but this is expected to change as 800V vehicle architectures become more prominent.
Crucially, a smaller and more lightweight inverter requires less energy to drive. This, alongside the increased efficiency in the rest of the drivetrain, enabled by silicon carbide, allows a reduction in battery size. The battery itself is often the single most expensive component of a battery EV, and can be up to 50% of the total cost.
Securing the supply chain
Essential to the successful rollout of EV and EV infrastructure is a resilient supply chain that is prepared to scale up. China, Germany, Japan and the US are already investing heavily in their own domestic silicon carbide supply chains that can compete internationally. There must also be an industry in the UK, and it must happen quickly. The UK will need to consolidate its position in the high value arena, firstly in automotive which will lead the development of this technology, but also in transferring these technologies and associated capabilities into other industries, such as aerospace and rail.
Further to this, the UK has the talent and reputation to lead the way in electrification, and it must use these to develop components in high volumes to serve both ends of the market. The UK engineering base and state-of-the-art R&D ecosystem has a strong record of innovation, making it the perfect environment to become a world leader in electrification technology, and be a role-model for the green industrial revolution.
With the commitments the UK government has made to electric vehicles, EVs are on the precipice of being viable not just for consumers, but in the commercial sector. With the components currently at their disposal, UK-based innovators have the opportunity to develop the efficient, cost-effective technologies that will underpin this transition. The next few years are crucial in determining how the green industrial revolution is realised, with the UK having a chance to play a leading role.