Great British Innovation

It’s sometimes surprising what goes on in “sleepy old Devon”. In amongst our rolling hills, country roads, beautiful cities and the pleasant way of life we get to enjoy down in this part of the world, you don’t expect to find cutting edge technology firms, automotive companies, bio-med innovators – but they all hide away in the nooks of Devon, believe me.

There’s one such innovator, a clean-tech automotive technology business based in Devon that Re:Fuel’s own Dan helped grow from a 10 to over 160 strong team in recent years. He left the business as their Head of Innovation to start Re:Fuel last year. But we’ve asked him to recall one particular project that he worked on that always gets people talking. And it all happened on the outskirts of Exeter…

It’s true that over the last 10 years I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a number of really interesting automotive projects. The reason I’ve felt so privileged to be involved is that many of them have been somewhat pivotal in changing the shape of the automotive landscape. A change curve I believe we are still only just at the beginning of. A curve that will undoubtedly be exponential for the coming decades. Whilst the internal combustion engine still, I believe, has a long life left in it yet (thank god!), we’re seeing the emergence of increasingly ultra high-tech powertrains. I’m convinced this trend is set to be less of a “Sony Minidisc”, and more like a mirror of the telecomms boom we saw when these crazy things called “mobile phones” took the world by storm. And let’s face it, with the current economic climate, we could do with any kind of “boom” in any industry.

The Innovation Island

The innovation we’re currently seeing in powertrains is exciting, but also quite unnerving to us die-hard petrolheads. So how do we save our beloved combustion engine, and be able to continue to enjoy our toys on the public roads for many years to come? A venue like Re:Fuel is a good start – to give us all a safe-haven to enjoy all the vehicles of the past, present and future – amongst our fellow enthusiasts. But that alone isn’t going to save us.

As an Engineer that’s travelled the world for his trade and worked in many cultures and countries, ever since I saw the very beginning of this commercially-viable shift in powertrain technology back in 2012, I’ve felt this urge, this responsibility, to ensure that the UK gets to stake its claim in the global revolution. I might be a dreamer, but I think back to the days of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Exhibition, when our country was a leader, cast in the limelight of global admiration as pioneers and world-class innovators. If ever we had a chance to reclaim our place on the podium, I really do believe it’s now. Equally, as a massive petrolhead since the age of about 8, I see it as an opportunity to safeguard our automotive hobbies and passion. If we can provide high-tech alternative powertrains for every-day use, particularly around cities, then we can meet the stringent air quality targets being set and it will allow our combustion engine’d toys to live on, without being taxed to the hilt or, worse, banned altogether. The first chance I got to do my little bit toward achieving this goal was working on a project with a low-volume car manufacturer that some of you may have heard of called McLaren. You might think, hang on, McLaren isn’t a city car or daily driver. You’d be right of course, but hear me out…

Insomnia in France

It was October 2012, and I got handed a cardboard file stuffed with paperwork with a project name on it: “Project Scorpio”. I was just heading off on a trip to France to programme the motor controllers on a fully submersible, electrically powered catamaran – sort of a cross between an electric catamaran and a submarine. Project Scorpio was to be my bedtime reading at the hotel. Which, by the way, turned out to be in the middle of a questionably lit district and the entire hotel was painted bright pink – inside and out. I was perfectly happy to sit in my room reading up on Project Scorpio!

When I started reading it, I had no idea who the British car manufacturer was that I would be working with. I didn’t get that many pages in, though, before I started seeing the McLaren logo pop up repeatedly – and that this project was something really rather special. Special for them, but about to become a rather special journey for me too – and for Exeter! I was captivated and stayed up late into the night reading through the file. Maybe the bright pink interior decor was partly to blame – but I suspect the prospect of building the world’s first British-made hybrid supercar was the main culprit for my insomnia that night.

After returning to Devon, I spent around 9 months working on the project – the high voltage charging system for a McLaren hybrid-electric powertrain. As the project progressed they developed various code names for the different subsystems of the car. One day in a meeting with the McLaren project manager, he announced that the car was to be called the “P1”.

The numbers and Exeter’s test ground

For a while we had limited details on the powertrain. When we eventually started to get details coming in, we could see it used a 120 kW electric motor generator unit (MGU). This was basically an integrated electric motor, motor control unit (called the MCU500) and DC voltage converter. It was actually developed by McLaren Applied back in 2009, so you can start to see that this was probably a 5 year project from inception to production. This tech developed for the P1 actually later went on to be used for the Formula E series. This highly advanced MGU was twinned with a 3.8L twin-turbo V8 combustion engine and a 4.7kWh Lithium-ion battery pack to make 903 bhp and a 0-60 of an eyeball-wrenching 2.6s. It’s eerie party trick was that it could also run on battery alone in what most refer to as “pure electric” mode. Only for 6.2 miles though! One other cool little fact – hit the DRS button on the steering wheel (it was actually just an unlabelled flick switch on the test car we had) and the rear wing drops down reducing drag by 23%. Not bad for just copying the VW Corrado’s best party trick.

Now some people around the outskirts of Exeter – particularly on the back-road between Pinhoe and Cullompton – may have been lucky enough to witness us out in the P1 on shakedown. I remember three things vividly. The first was the audible grunt of the V8. It sounded angry – which makes sense when you think we were basically driving an electric-infused supercar version of Frankenstein’s monster. The second was the look on people’s faces as this black-and-white-swirl liveried monster of a supercar glided past them almost silently under pure electric power. The third was that even in this mode when the engine was switched off, it felt faster than my 315bhp 2.7 V6 BiTurbo Audi S4 that I had at the time. Not bad for 120kW of electrical power. The 260 Nm of torque right from zero speed may have something to do with it, along with perhaps a bit of added science and magic. For anyone that doesn’t know, modern permanent magnet electric motors deliver full torque from zero speed, unlike their traditional counterparts or the combustion engine where torque ramps up from zero with speed. Of course, it also helps that, as Jeremy Clarkson put it, “the whole chassis weighs less than James May”. The combination of the titanic acceleration this produces and the lack of noise quite literally boggles the mind. I recall, at the time, it was like my little petrolhead brain just couldn’t cope with what it was seeing and hearing. “Does not compute”.

The most incredible thing about the P1, is that it achieves all of the above whilst still managing 34mpg and by producing only around 130g/km of CO2 out on the open roads, which is no more than your average Ford Mondeo. It’s peak is 194g/km, but that’s under high load urban driving where, to be fair, you can just switch it over to electric instead. Now whilst you may not go out to buy a car like this with low emissions levels being on your checklist of must-haves, this kind of tech will certainly help keep supercars like this alive and on our roads. It also filters down to the more accessible road toys too like BMW’s M series and Audi’s S range – helping keep our hobby and passion (and the combustion engine!) alive.

The launch, Jeremy and the future

The project threw us many challenges and headaches. Most of which I’m not allowed to talk about – but we did have a few “thermal events” (referred to by most normal people as a “fire”) in destruction testing, which was both interesting, amusing and, on occasion, unexpected! Through blood, sweat and tears on the tight project timeline, we worked long, tireless development hours on the P1 in our workshop just on the edge of Exeter. Perhaps not very surprisingly, the roads of Devon made for good suspension testing too! The final performance validation days down here were back in early 2013. After a “press car” was shown off at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2013 (whilst we were still finishing off testing back in Devon) production began at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking in October 2013, and they were sold out in Europe by November.

I remember how protective and nervous I felt when it featured on Top Gear, being driven by Jeremy. I remember him sat in a cafe, with the P1 parked on the road outside, and I was dreading him deciding he didn’t like it and wanting to tear it to shreds on national television. But he absolutely loved it. He called it a “game changer”, and “a genuinely new chapter in the history of motoring”. I also recall seeing it receive equally blistering reviews in various other places in the media and automotive press and thinking “that was born in Exeter”. In reality of course, the subsystems of the car were born in various workshops spread out across the UK, and a few abroad – but Exeter certainly played it’s part, I like to think I played my part, and perhaps it isn’t as crazy as some might think for projects like this to be the beginnings of the UK reclaiming its place in the spotlight as a global innovator. To refer back to Jeremy one more time: “On track, it can rip a hole through time. And it’s all been achieved by something that’s been around for centuries. Brilliant British engineering.”

Since then there have been various battery research centres and enterprises setup in the UK, including some “battery universities” – pioneering innovation in charging systems. Of course I’m still nervous as to what’s going to happen to our beloved internal combustion engine. I’m certainly not planning on selling my V8-powered X5 or any of my other big-engine’d toys. But things like the McLaren P1, due to the way they’re funded and the support from the UK government, facilitate the development of highly valuable Intellectual Property (IP). IP that will drive the kind of changes we need to get people commuting in cleaner cars allowing us to hit the stringent emissions targets for our highways. Then we can prevent our much-loved combustion engine’d toys being banned from the road. We can even stop them being taxed to the hilt, and we can keep using them for pleasure, for road trips and to meet up with fellow enthusiasts at great venues like Re:Fuel all around the world. I, for one, certainly don’t see hybrid and electric cars as the death of the combustion engine – I see them as it’s saviour.