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Only batteries have the power to save British carmaking | Automotive industry

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The British government’s £100m-plus commitment to secure Nissan’s battery gigafactory for Sunderland has been like gadget-shopping on Amazon writ large: splurging on some new technology that has suddenly become essential – and then being immediately prompted to buy another six.

This time, though, duplicating the spending looks more sensible. More gigafactories – or plain old big battery factories – are not essential for the UK to transition to using electric vehicles (EVs). But they certainly will be if Britain hopes to keep making, selling and exporting its own cars.

While Britain is regarded as advanced in battery science and research, that is not the case in manufacturing. The only existing EV battery facility in the UK is already Nissan’s, supplying thousands of its bestselling Leafs. The £1bn investment announced last week, from the Japanese carmaker, its battery partner Envision and the taxpayer, heralds a first gigafactory, with almost five times the capacity and potentially much more.

The industry says that is welcome, but nowhere near enough. Nissan’s deal could create 6,000 new jobs, but the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says 90,000 jobs are at risk without more gigafactories.

Driven by climate policy and Brexit, the industry is repurposing itself and jostling for position. Batteries, the fundamental component of electric cars, are mainly produced in Asia, which adds cost and subtracts value for European manufacturers.

David Bailey, professor of business economics at Birmingham Business School, says: “The industry is electrifying very quickly – we will see very rapid change over the next five to 10 years.” The cost of batteries is more than 80% lower than a decade ago, when they averaged $1,000 a kilowatt hour. “Once the cost gets down to about $100 a kWh, you’ll get parity with the cost of the internal combustion engine.”

That tipping point should be reached three to six years before the government enforces a switch away from new petrol and diesel cars in 2030, meaning electric vehicles become a cheaper – as well as greener – option for consumers, who buy some 2 million cars a year in the UK alone.

A worker in a brightly lit part of the production line attending to something on the open door of a modern looking blue hatchback
A Nissan Leaf, the company’s successful battery powered car, coming off the production line at Sunderland. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

“We’re going to need a lot of batteries,” says Bailey. “They’re very heavy to move around, so transport costs are significant and car assembly is likely to gravitate to where batteries are being made.”

The other pressing factor is Brexit: the trade agreement with the EU means that by the end of 2026 the battery will have to be made in the UK or EU for an electric car produced in the UK to avoid tariffs. “Given that there is massive investment in gigafactories in the EU, the UK is lagging behind.”

By 2025, the SMMT forecasts the UK will have only a fraction of the production of other countries: 12 gigawatt hours of lithium-ion battery capacity. That compares with 91 GWh in the US, including the giant Tesla facility in Nevada, 32 GWh in France, and 164 GWh in Germany.

The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said Nissan could be the trigger for a “virtuous cycle” of new investment, although so far there are public plans, as yet unfunded, for just one other UK gigafactory – a facility for startup Britishvolt at a site in Blyth. Ford is said to be mulling options, while Jaguar Land Rover’s plans could involve a gigafactory near its West Midlands manufacturing heartland.

While the industry clamours for EU levels of funding – €3bn (£2.6bn) versus £500m pledged in the UK – some suggest policy should change. Ben Nelmes at the transport thinktank New AutoMotive argues: “A system like California’s incentivises manufacturers to sell fully zero-emission vehicles, as opposed to meeting a steadily decreasing target for grams of CO2 per kilometre. That strong policy has given rise to Tesla – it allows businesses to make those big investments in shifting their production lines over and making batteries.”

The importance of mass battery manufacturing goes beyond the car industry: it will also be crucial for the storage of green electricity, whose production fluctuates with the wind and the sun.

The desire to manufacture batteries with renewables is giving rise to innovation: the Nissan gigafactory will be accompanied by more solar and wind farms serving Sunderland, storing power in recycled car batteries for the plant’s “microgrid”, the first of its kind in the UK.

Research in Britain continues, meanwhile, into different types of battery – “solid state” cells that could be ultimately cheaper than lithium-ion. But for now, only the latter technology is sufficiently developed for car production, and the race is on. “The real danger is that unless we make batteries in the UK we will probably lose our mass car industry,” warns Bailey. “We’ve really got some catching up to do.”

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SSD belonging to Euro-cloud Scaleway was stolen from back of a truck, then turned up on YouTube • The Register

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In brief Deepmind and the European Bioinformatics Institute released a database of more than 350,000 3D protein structures predicted by the biz’s AI model AlphaFold.

That data covers the 20,000 or so proteins made in the human body, and is available for anyone to study. The proteomes of 20 other organisms, from Zebrafish to E.coli bacteria, are also in there, too, and hundreds of millions of more structures will be added over time, we’re told.

“In the hands of scientists around the world, this new protein almanac will enable and accelerate research that will advance our understanding of these building blocks of life,” said DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis. He hopes that it will be a valuable resource that will be used in the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of diseases.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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