Premium EVs Can Steer the Market, Says Williams

There has been a rash of car launches from premium automakers in the past few months that play on their credentials as innovative battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

While these high-ticket products grab the headlines and attempt to breath some glamour into the electrification debate, they remain firmly beyond the means of most ordinary motorists, so is there much point to them from an industry point of view? Consider, for example, the move by Formula One racing specialist Williams who is supplying the batteries for the electrified powertrain of the new Aston Martin Lagonda Rapid E.

Drawing on its hybrid electrified powertrain experience with racing cars, Williams’ engineering arm is entering the road vehicle market with Unipart in a bid to become the UK’s biggest EV battery manufacturer. However, aside from these niche products, will the technology begin to make the inroads into mass adoption by the marketplace?

To find out, I went to the Cenex LCV2018 event at the UK auto industry’s testing facility at Millbrook, Bedfordshire, where Williams’ battery technology was being showcased. There, technical director, Paul McNamara, told me, for the moment at least, the premium end of the market can have a real part to play in encouraging acceptance of electrification.

He said: “For us as Williams we are approaching the subject of electrification from a racing standpoint. It started with Formula One then into Formula E and then into various projects such as performance parts packs and Aston Martin is very much part of that. We are the logical, sensible supplier when you are looking for high performance lightweight products.

“Naturally, from a cost point of view, you’re more likely to be dealing with a premium product than with a mass market one. That said, if you look at what Nissan has been doing the Leaf, by far the best selling electric car and now in its second generation, it shows it’s horses-for-courses and you can attack it from either end.”

Nonetheless, McNamara accepted that high-end premium vehicles, which are often larger or are stripped out hypercars, have more room for larger than average battery packs, do go so way to offsetting range anxiety issues among owners. He added: “The question is as the market evolves will it penetrate the mass market? I think probably, especially the way the premium cars are used – they’re not an everyday runabout and, therefore, electrification makes a lot more sense. Performance cars are about desire-ability and this can feed into the way electrification is perceived. In terms of market percentage penetration, electrification will start to dominate at the premium end and that will help bring the technology on further.”

Premium products can also raise the desire for electrified cars from lower-end consumers, he said, adding: “Everyone will look and see premium Mercedes, Aston Martin and premium Jaguar products as electric and then the desire-ability of the technology will increase.”

While McNamara admitted UK government investment has gone a long way to kick-starting electric powertrain development, he said there remains a crucial role for public investment. He explained: “The government involvement has been very useful for the suppliers working in this area, including ourselves at Williams, in bringing products to market and now I think where it needs to turn its attention to what it can achieve with the infrastructure.

“The range anxiety problem is not just the range of the product but also about the availability of a charge. So, it’s now almost this charge availability that is becoming the real focus of range anxiety. Pushing this infrastructure will make the mass change to electric vehicles possible.

However, McNamara believes the government cannot be expected to shoulder the lions’ share of the burden in investment. He said: “With private players coming into the market, the government has a stronger regulatory role to play and the trick I am sure they will try to do is to regulate and cajole rather than have to put too much money into it. However, there is an environmental story to tell here and it’s also about the UK jobs story by pushing this industry here and making the UK a hub for it.

“They will try to limit the amount of public money spent on doing this and also the technology is in its early stages and they will consider the old VHS-Betamax issue and will not want to take too much of a risk on things. There have been a lot of people saying ‘what about hydrogen fuel cell or aluminum batteries?’ I think it’s not in the government’s role to force one over the others but it does appear that a global consensus is forming that some sort of electric storage BEV is the right solution. In the UK we should absolutely behind that or risk being left behind.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *