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The innovative UK automotive industry: how the past can inspire the future

Dr Terence Broderick

By Dr Terence Broderick

Patent Attorney

Despite press reports to the contrary over the years, the UK automotive industry remains successful, employing over three quarters of a million people. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the UK automotive industry turned over almost £78 billion in 2016 as more than 2.5 million new cars were registered and more than 1.3 million cars were exported to 160 countries. That’s a truly positive message about the sector.

This success is in part fuelled by innovation, of which there is a good deal underway from new, more efficient powertrains to more responsive dashboards and infotainment systems. Although some innovation is inspired from overseas, there have been some commendable contributions to the sector as a whole.

The UK automotive industry has an often understated history of innovation and the numbers above do not include the many intangible contributions to the industry. These include research and development, generated intellectual property, inspiration from establishments like the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership to drive the sector forward towards a more sustainable future and the dynamism from organisations like the Welsh Automotive Forum and similar organisations across the UK in speaking for the protagonists in the sector.

Here we look at five notable contributions to the sector over the years.

The original Mini

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There’s no better place to start than the original Mini. It is unmistakable in its looks and almost limitless in terms of its configurability. Its appeal was profound as, according to the DVLA in 2010, more than 5.5 million examples were sold.

In a recent survey of the greatest British cars conducted by Autocar magazine, the original Mini came out on top, above much more technologically advanced offerings including the Range Rover and the McLaren F1.

People often gloss over the context which motivated the Mini. The Mini came about as a UK industry response to the increase in sales of the Fiat 500 and the German bubble cars in the wake of the Suez oil crisis in 1956, where fuel became more expensive and larger cars became less appealing. The designer, Alec Issigonis, was briefed to produce a car which could be contained in a box which measured only ten feet in length and of which six feet must be passenger accommodation. Previously, cars where not designed with such a reduced footprint in mind.

The design of the Mini met this brief largely due to a key enabling technology — the transversely mounted engine. This enabled the length of the Mini to be substantially reduced and a British icon was created. It was the first time a transversely mounted engine had been successfully fitted to a mass production car without compromising performance. This innovative arrangement of the engine has been adopted since across the motor industry, from the (again) iconic Lamborghini Miura to many of the modern Volvos.

Aside from enabling millions to have their own car due to its small price, the Mini has gathered a worldwide following of enthusiasts and won the Monte Carlo rally three times. It is very often described as the most influential motor car of all time.

McLaren P1

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If the Mini enabled millions to access the road in their own car, the McLaren P1 could be described as the very height of exclusivity. Only 375 were sold, at a price thought to be upwards of £1.9m.

Designed and assembled by McLaren in Woking, UK, the McLaren P1 is an engineering masterpiece, capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds and from 0 to 186 mph in only 16.5 seconds. The estimated top speed of the McLaren P1 is 249 mph when the electronic speed limiter is removed.

An innovative design feature of this car is the engine ducts which lead into the engine of the McLaren P1. They have a texture inspired by the scales of a sailfish, a fish which has been measured swimming the 100 metres in around half the time it takes for Usain Bolt to run the same distance. The scales generate vortices which substantially reduce the drag of the sailfish as it swims through water and are used to similar effect on this car, enabling it to travel at such phenomenal speeds. Not stopping at the scales of the sailfish, the McLaren P1 also used the shape of the diplets, which are found at the torso of the fin of the sailfish, to make the car more aerodynamic.

It’s not just biomimicry which has been crucial to the development of the McLaren P1. The body work is described as being ‘shrink-wrapped’ over the framework of the car as part of a ‘fanatical’ approach to weight reduction.

Additionally, the McLaren P1 makes use of an Instant Power Assist System which provides a powerful electric motor to increase the power from 727 bhp to 903 bhp on demand without incurring the torque gap incurred by the standard petrol engine.

The figures associated with this car are easy to be seduced by — whether you have £1.9m to spend or not — but the innovation behind this car is a true boon for the UK automotive industry. Whilst you may not see many of these on the road, the story behind its design is something of which the UK automotive industry should be proud. Let’s hope that the innovation behind this car trickles down to cars with a more accessible price tag in the future.

Toyota in Burnaston, Derbyshire

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“Toyota is a Japanese company!” I hear you say, and although true, Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, UK produced over 170,000 cars in 2015 and was the first manufacturing plant to implement the Toyota Production System (TPS).

The TPS combines two principles, ‘jidoka’ and ‘just-in-time’. Jidoka loosely translates (from Japanese) as “automation with a human touch” which means that when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, which prevents defective products from being manufactured.

Just-in-time is a principle which ensures that each process in a process flow produces only what is needed by the next process in that flow — which reduces waste. The use of this process means that Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Burnaston can efficiently and quickly produce vehicles one at a time, based on a wide range of configurations required by the customer. A car is said to come off the production line every 60 seconds.

This approach has been a trailblazer for manufacturing in the automotive industry and has enabled production to continue in Burnaston from 1992 to the present day. During this time, automotive manufacturing has faced multiple challenges. One of those challenges is the number of configurations available to customers when they are specifying their car.

This was the first factory in the world to implement the TPS. In 1992, the number of options on a car was relatively limited and cars did not contain the amount of electronic gadgetry they do now. Yet this manufacturing plant has continued without any serious problem — and it seems this is largely due to the TPS.

Range Rover Velar

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This UK manufactured and designed car takes an innovative approach to cabin design, which is wholly centred on the driver. This seeks to make it very driver-friendly. It was launched in summer 2017.

One of the most obvious features of this car is the use of three touchscreens and the lack of physical buttons. According to Range Rover’s own marketing material, the use of so many touchscreens enables the information displayed to the driver to be tailored to the preference of the driver and also enables virtual buttons to be provided which can change based upon the function the driver is using at the time.

The Range Rover Velar also contains a large number of driver assistance features — the list of which is too long to discuss here — but amongst them is a front-mounted camera which is configured to read road signs to determine information such as speed limits. This information is then fed to one of the touchscreens to keep the driver informed of the speed limit — similar features on other cars have relied upon GPS data which can be unreliable on smaller roads.

Another key driver aid on this car is the blind spot monitor and blind spot assist functionality. The blind spot monitor determines the presence of an obstacle, such as another car, in the blind spot and provides an alert to the driver through the door mirror. The blind spot assist function applies torque to the steering wheel when the dangerous manoeuvre is taking place to effectively steer the car out of the way of the obstacle. This innovative and attentive approach to the driver is a step change in the industry and points to a future in the automotive industry where cabins are less cluttered and more comfortable.

London Routemaster Bus

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The London Routemaster bus is not just a British automotive icon, it’s a true British icon. It was introduced in 1956 by London Transport and was built according to a pioneering new design which allowed boarding and alighting at locations other than stops due to a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ platform and which was lighter (and hence more fuel efficient) than its predecessor, the London trolleybus. It was designed and built in London.

A new Routemaster now populates the streets of London featuring a similar ‘hop-on, hop-off’ platform and is a hybrid of diesel and electric power — but is yet to achieve the same status as the original.

What next for the UK automotive industry?

The sector is facing many challenges and uncertainties due to BREXIT and changes in regulation as part of a push towards electric vehicles. However, the automotive industry has shown itself over history to be able to address problems and to constantly evolve as a result of innovation which has addressed the challenges which have been presented.

The UK automotive industry should be confident that it can move forward and still contribute to this sector on the worldwide level. Meeting challenges through innovation almost always generates intellectual property and we’re happy to discuss any ideas that addresses the challenges in this sector.

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