How Britain’s electric car revolution took a wrong turn – The Telegraph | CarTailz

“We have recently launched our first domestic battery and whilst we are delighted with the product we would have preferred to source the battery cells from the UK if that had been an option,” he said.

He estimates the UK can only produce 50,000 car batteries a year, less than a tenth of what is needed.

Hawes at SMMT argues that the UK car industry has “fundamental strengths” but that changes are needed to ensure it doesn’t fall victim to more agile competitors.

“It can and will be rebuilt,” he adds. “But the UK Government – like others we compete with – must take action to ensure the UK remains a competitive destination for foreign investment.”

Additional controls on exports to the EU – the UK car industry’s largest market – have inevitably led to more time and pressure.

The UK car industry has a 0% collective bargaining agreement with the EU, but there’s still a lot of paperwork that wasn’t there before the UK left the Union, says Ian Foley, founder of electric bus maker Equipmake. These small differences can mean that foreign investors are put off by the UK.

Solve the Gigafactory puzzle

Palmer, known as the “godfather of electric vehicles” for his work helping launch Nissan’s electric Leaf, vividly recalls being woken up at 3am 12 years ago by former Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, when he was still an executive was in Japan.

Nissan had to decide where to build a battery factory for the Leaf – which was seen as an ambitious gamble at the time – and Mandelson had gotten wind of Palmer’s preference for Portugal over the UK.

“I understand you will make the decision to go to Portugal, I want you to change your mind,” the Labor minister told Palmer.

Palmer replied that the Portuguese had won fairly and honestly and had offered the company better incentives, but Mandelson asked him to wait 24 hours anyway.

“He then came back with the goods – and that’s why the battery plant in Sunderland exists today,” says Palmer.

“And when you have a factory, it’s easier to expand.”

Today ministers need to be similarly proactive to ensure Britain gets its share of the electric car market, he says.

“You look across the Channel and the EU has made battery manufacturing a strategic priority project,” says Palmer.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation. For example, if I want to build a battery factory in the UK, I’d probably want Jaguar Land Rover as a customer.

“JLR probably also wants to be close to a battery manufacturer, otherwise they choose a location like Slovakia. You have to intervene.”

Palmer, chairman of battery maker InoBat, says his own company is currently choosing between Spain and the UK as possible sites for a gigafactory – but Madrid is working harder to win him over.

“Emotionally, I would like to see Britain win, but I have to represent my shareholders,” he says.

Foley agrees. “One thing that worries me is when you look at the commitment of other countries and regions to things like battery manufacturing, it’s orders of magnitude greater than the UK,” he says.

If the government won’t shell out, some rules should be adjusted to allow pension funds to invest in the burgeoning sector. Even a tiny fraction of the £114.6bn shoveled away by pension savers last year could make a difference, but current restrictions mean UK funds need to be far more cautious than their US counterparts.

“Basically, in the UK, the people who run mutual funds are more conservative than in America,” says Foley.

If Britain can solve the Gigafactory riddle, it can capitalize on the great strengths already here.

“Britain is known for outstanding creativity and innovation,” says Hayaatun Sillemchief, Executive Director of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Industry insiders say this is backed up by the multitude of motorsport companies based here, such as McLaren, Williams, Aston Martin, as well as racing teams from Mercedes, Alpine and Haas.

But, Sillem adds, the country needs to get better at taking that innovation and successfully commercializing it in companies that create output, jobs and wealth. She also cites reluctance to invest and the lack of state aid as problems holding the industry back.

“We need this clear partnership between government and business,” she says.

Palmer says Britain still has a chance to turn things around, but adds: “We’re really late to the party if I’m being honest. We’d better get started if we think we’re going to save the auto industry.”

After making his 150th phone call, Britishvolt’s Rolton managed to secure his company a last-minute lifeline from Glencore, the mining and commodities giant.

The cash injection, which is accompanied by austerity measures such as voluntary salary cuts for employees, will keep the business going for the time being. In the end, says Rolton, either his business will succeed or another will have to if the British auto industry is to survive.

“Batteries come to cars or cars become batteries,” says Rolton. “We don’t seem to fully understand that yet.”

For now, Britisvolt’s dream of fueling the electric car revolution is working on borrowed time. Like the UK car industry in general, time is running out to save it.

A Government spokesman said: “The UK is one of the best locations in the world for car manufacturing and we remain committed to securing gigafactories across the country.

“Our success is evidenced by Nissan’s huge investment in their new Sunderland facility and we will build on that through a major investment program to electrify our supply chain and create jobs.

“Britishvolt’s support through the Automotive Transformation Fund has always been conditional on the company meeting certain pre-agreed milestones to protect taxpayers’ money.”

As for Thatcher in the 1970s, balancing taxpayer risk with protecting a vital industry is a challenge.

But if the country doesn’t get it right, Britain risks the sun setting on its electric car ambitions.

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