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The automotive path to net zero

Following a day of stall shopping, shameless LinkedIn-network expanding, and freebie grabbing, the Warwick Careers in Economics Fair on Wednesday 8 November had one final treat in store.

Organised by Warwick Economic Summit, Dr Andy Palmer, erstwhile Aston Martin CEO, made his way up onto the Panorama 3 stage at around 4:30pm to discuss all things vehicular.

Or rather, more specifically, everything pertaining to the electric vehicle (EV) revolution. A Warwick alumnus, Dr Palmer started his career at brake-and-clutch manufacturer Automotive Products – which can count F1 teams among its clients.

Seemingly unsatisfied with just making parts, he soon moved onto the full package. In 1991 Dr Palmer joined Nissan, where he remained for the next 23 years. By the time he left in 2014, he’d risen through the ranks all the way to the position of Chief Operations Officer.

At this point, Aston Martin beckoned, plucking the Japanese brand’s number-two man from right under its nose to fill its vacated CEO role after long-serving German, Ulrich Bez, decided to step aside.

Nonetheless, it was during his time spent at Nissan where Andy Palmer really made a name for himself. As the man chiefly responsible for the 2010 rollout of Nissan’s first fully electric offering, the Leaf, the smash-hit that the zero-emission, smooth, little auto proved to be meant his star was on a motoring rise.

It’s hard to overstate the Leaf’s success. It was the first mass-market EV and held the impressive record of being the best-selling plug-in electric model worldwide until 2020, when the Leaf was dethroned by Tesla’s Model 3.

Furthermore, the car’s triumph brought Dr Palmer the moniker of the ‘Godfather of EVs’, a title surely far more prestigious than that of any C-suite role. And it is in this space where his professional passion so clearly lies.

Now CEO of PodPoint, an EV charging station provider, he strives to make the UK competitive on the electric transport front. Expressing frustration at the government’s recent announcement to shunt the 2030 new-petrol-car-selling deadline further into the future by five years, he implored those in Westminster to invest in new battery plants in these isles.

Moreover, he prognosticated that it wasn’t a question of whether China would win the race of making the EV market firmly its own, but instead one of just how big this victory was going to be, and at whose expense it would come.

Already, BYD and CATL – two Chinese EV battery manufacturers – represent over half of total global EV battery sales between them, as per Bloomberg. Able to take advantage of significant economies of scale, Chinese EVs sold by the likes of BYD, SAIC, Great Wall Motors, and Geely have been increasing in popularity around the world thanks to relatively cheap prices.

Figures from The Guardian put this rapid rise into further context. In 2019, Chinese EVs made up 0.5% of all EV sales in Europe. Two years later the same statistic had nearly octupled to 3.9%. By September 2023, it had shot to 8.2%.

Dr Palmer also advocated for a proper UK industrial strategy to avoid complete Chinese hegemony in the EV arena. In addition to the requisite infrastructure improvements, he believes mechanic reskilling is imperative to dealing with the different challenges EVs pose compared to internal combustion engines. Having helped the Labour Party with the transport section of their upcoming election manifesto, this isn’t just talk.

Highlighting the major trends of car sharing and integrated charge-share systems; the movement towards autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles; and the unstoppable rise of the EV, Dr Palmer lucidly explained too how the vehicle industry is being retooled. There is of course uncertainty. How might semi-solid- and solid-state batteries change things? Will it be hydrogen combustion and sustainable fuels paving our way to a net-zero future?

However, what is certain is that the chance to listen to such an esteemed figure in Dr Palmer, from an industry which will only continue to move through the gears, growing globally both in size and prominence, was a real pleasure. He just hopes to avoid being labelled as the ‘Grandfather of EVs’ anytime soon.


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