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Automotive industry benefits from Budget boost to help meet future high-tech skills demand


Thursday 23rd November 2017

The automotive industry faces an electric future. The rapid development of autonomous, connected, electric and shared vehicle (ACES) technology will bring huge changes to transport systems. Chancellor Philip Hammond has announced £540m to support the growth of electric cars, including further research, as part of the Budget.

However, the recent technology, being developed at an ever-increasing rate, currently threatens to outstrip the pace of skills development within the mainstream automotive sector. Global automotive engineering pioneers, HORIBA MIRA are teaming up with Midlands’ education providers to address the future skills gap. 

The automotive sector has been slow to progress from traditional mechanical approaches when many of the new developments rely on the ability to harness high-tech and digital solutions. According to Anthony Baxendale, who heads up the future transport technologies research team for HORIBA MIRA, this presents a serious challenge for the sector.

Accelerating pace of change

“We must not forget,” says Anthony, “that the pace of change in digital technologies has been much faster than any developments in the lifecycle of the internal combustion engine which has dominated the automotive sector for over 100 years.

“We are now seeing a much more rapid innovation cycle, for example, in ACES technologies, and the workforce must adapt just as quickly or prepare to face a crisis of capacity.”

Connectivity risks

Anthony explains that most vehicles are now connected to the internet either through satellite navigation systems linked to traffic reports or through Bluetooth or USB connectors. Stringent safety considerations have engendered caution within the sector regarding cyber-security, to mitigate the potential for viruses or malware to attack vehicle interfaces. These vulnerabilities can only be addressed by those skilled in coding and IT development.

Furthermore, in the field of autonomous vehicles, it is likely that the standard cruise control function will evolve within three to five years to become more like an aircraft auto-pilot.

It will be possible for drivers to take their eyes off the road as the vehicle controls the steering and braking. Baxendale explains that the car will become a robot, deploying artificial intelligence and demanding a higher profile for computer science skills in the industry.

Vehicle systems development will become multi-disciplinary as designers consider the human factor in driving, to gauge how a driver could cope with taking control of an autonomous vehicle quickly if a fault or threat was detected. This embeds the skills of behavioural psychologists applying models of cognitive function to vehicle systems design. These skills are likely to become mainstream requirements of the automotive sector within the next decade.

Powering the future

Anthony goes on to say that vehicle battery technology will also be subject to significant high-tech developments over the years ahead. Powering the battery will not necessarily mean plugging it into an electric power supply. Currently, in a pre-production phase, inductive technology will be embedded within parking spaces so that charging can make use of induction to top up the battery.

Batteries themselves are set to get smaller and more powerful as research is invested in lithium-ion chemistry. Confidence in battery life will mitigate ‘range anxiety’ in the consumer who fears not always being able to make it home. The development of portable APUs (auxiliary power units) such as those used by BMW will provide further reassurance by enabling drivers to store a two-cylinder ‘spare’ engine in the boot.

Attracting the best talent

Baxendale says that the future skills challenge must be met head-on by engaging young people with passion and enthusiasm to provide career inspiration. He calls on schools and colleges to work closely with engineering companies on engaging education programmes as a priority. Furthermore, he cites the gender gap as a significant issue with women representing only 10% of engineers and 4% of app developers in the UK. 

HORIBA MIRA has already shown its commitment to the future of skills development in automotive technologies through its plans to launch the MIRA Technology Institute in 2018. From its base in Nuneaton in Warwickshire, the company responded to a plan by its local provider of further education, North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College, spurred on by local LEP research into future skills demands.

Marion Plant OBE, Principal and Chief Executive of NWSLC says, “The MIRA Technology Institute provides a real opportunity to transform the skills supply, particularly at high levels, to the automotive industry. This will include a focus on the skills for the new disruptive technology areas including autonomous, connected, electric and shared (ACES) vehicle technologies. It has the ability to secure a real ‘step change’ in the future productivity of the industry locally, regionally and globally. I firmly believe that the MTI represents the future of technical and skills training for the UK in line with the industrial strategy.”

For Anthony Baxendale, the future of the automotive sector in the UK is dependent on meeting the skills demand and he is looking forward to working with the Institute’s first intake next year to start work on some innovative solutions.

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