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Greening and cleaning: the revolution taking place in the automotive industry.

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I've just returned from a fantastic trip to Copenhagen. It wasn't my first; one of the things that makes this already-engaging city that extra bit special for me is that it is a leading light in clean energy, celebrated as one of the world’s greenest and most sustainable urban areas. It keeps drawing me back.

Visitors new to the city will be struck by the impression that cycling is the dominant mode of inter-city transport, the water pretty much everywhere (as far as I know) is clean enough to swim in, and the city is recognised for its investment into clean technology. It aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025, with admirable electricity, heat and green transport targets funded by a mixture of public and private investment totalling billions. It is hoped that, by 2025, 75% of trips within the city will be made on foot, by bike or public transport – a huge figure.

I’m inspired by the size and scope of the city’s ambition and its dedication to clean energy in a way that I hadn’t experienced until I became a father last year. I’m not suggesting that new parents have a special insight into our place in the world, but in my own case I now think a little differently about the future, and my fascination with clean energy has grown to a new level.

Automotive: cleaning and greening

I have spent all my working life in the automotive sector. It’s an industry that has had to take a long, hard look at its own sustainability and its impact on the environment. And it is doing so. This month alone, two media stories have grabbed my attention. Each is significant in its own way.

Firstly, Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer has announced that electrification “features prominently in (Aston Martin’s) business plan going forward,” with the brand’s new site in South Wales – set to be the home of its EV marques - nearing completion. Aston Martin’s new electric Lagonda has been described as the “world’s first zero-emission luxury marque.” Meanwhile, a joint venture between Williams Advanced Engineering and Unipart Manufacturing Group will open in Coventry early next year, supplying battery packs for hybrid and pure electric vehicles, with Aston Martin as its launch customer (initially in the limited-run Rapide-E).

Although all industry is now going this way, I still can’t quite shake my surprise at the news that Aston Martin Lagonda is going to electrify. Aston Martin is renowned for its associations: V8 engines, prestige, Britishness, luxury, tradition, craftsmanship. Many of the brand associations AML carries are pretty far removed from glib ideas about electric vehicles. If this marque can be confident of electrifying without losing its unique appeal (and I’m pretty sure it can) then surely any brand can. What’s more, this example is itself a lesson about lazy assumptions: the future is electric, so the prestige of, say, a V8 engine will one day be replaced by prestige of a different kind.

Government and industry aligned?

Another piece of news that has inspired me is the government’s plan to put the UK at the forefront of zero emission vehicles, making all new cars and vans effectively emission-free by 2040. Not such new news, this – but it was recently discussed at the Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, which is a world first and a further signal of significant positive disruption in the industry. The summit brought together policy makers and experts from around the world to discuss the issue of carbon emissions and air quality. It was described by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling as a “ground-breaking event (that) shows Britain leading the way in developing the new technology that will create new jobs and help improve the air we breathe.”

There’s still a long way to go. Recent progress in battery technology won’t make electric vehicles affordable or pragmatic for the average consumer overnight, nor mitigate the work involved in creating a truly universal rapid-charging infrastructure. But finally, suddenly it seems as though scientists and engineers find ways around barriers to progress almost as quickly as they are encountered. We saw earlier this year that game-changing advances in ceramic solid-state electrolyte could lead to a factor of ten increase in charging speed for lithium metal batteries, which represents a big step forward in one issue that, only last year, was perceived to be a major snag.

This is what happens when there is a real will to succeed; one shared by government, industry and consumers. The Faraday Battery Challenge is a fair example of how the government is helping to energise industry, pledging to invest £246 million to support the development of battery technologies and awarding £22m of grants to participating researchers and automotive brands to accelerate research.

A beautiful game

Here’s another example that, for me, is closer to home. I’m a fan of Southampton Football Club so I spend a fair amount of time in the city, and was delighted to learn that it could be the site of the world’s largest battery and vehicle charging network in a scheme to be rolled out next year. Green energy start-up Pivot Power will host grid-scale 50MW batteries and rapid vehicle charging docks at 45 sites across the UK, having gained the backing of the National Grid, an investment house and Michael Liebreich, a Green Energy entrepreneur. The company’s charging infrastructure is expected to be deployed to provide public rapid charging stations, electric buses and fleet transport, and should be rolled out in Southampton during 2019, before expanding across the South and East of the UK.

This is serious stuff. With the UK government, universities, scientists and commercial industry all pulling in the same direction, it feels like the stars are aligned for the UK to become a low-emission powerhouse of clean transport.

As a footnote I’d like to add that Forest Green Rovers, my second team and the world’s first Carbon Neutral football club, were 12th in League Two at the time of writing. For anyone looking for a team to support, surely that’s a club worthy of your hopes and dreams – after Saints, of course!