Saturday, September 18, 2021
Cars

The Two Welshmen Who Are Quietly At The Front Of The Green Car Revolution


They are both former petrolheads.

They raced on tracks and in rallies through woods. They revelled in the roar of the engine, the smell of the fumes, but then they both, at different times, fell out of love with the combustion engine.

While Richard Morgan is a bit more Guy Martin, Hugo Spowers is more James May.

There is a touch of the mad professor about him – he is a former member of the Dangerous Sports Club, after all – and when he gets going, he is fascinating to listen to.

He’s been looking to reinvent the car for more than two decades.

Such has been his dogged determination and focused attention to this mission the London Business School honoured Hugo with the Unreasonable Person award at its Real Innovation Awards two years ago. They said he showed “enormous tenacity and stubbornness in pursuing an idea, despite the difficulties encountered along the way”.

This comes across when you talk to him. Or more, listen and learn as he talks.

Richard, on the other hand, only started his company five years ago, and for him, it has been a bit more plain sailing. Although it has been a rapid rise.

The pair are on different journeys in the green car revolution. Richard is all-electric, while Hugo uses hydrogen for power.

However, this is no VHS vs Betamax battle where only one will survive, Hugo describes it as more akin to petrol and diesel, and that there is room in the market for both.

While electric and hydrogen both have their pluses and minuses, there is clearly a need, and demand for both as the world looks to go green.

And where there is demand there is money. Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, filed confidentially for an initial public offering, the company announced last month.

Founded in 2009, the California-based company, which is seen as a significant challenger to Tesla, is seeking a valuation of more than $70bn, according to the Financial Times.

There have been reports Rivian is looking to build a factory just over the Severn Bridge in Bristol. However, the deal is hanging in the balance over the financial incentives Britain can offer and whether the south west England city has freeport status.

Last week the Welsh Government launched a new £1.8m fund to encourage businesses to move beyond manufacturing internal combustion engines to producing low carbon vehicle technologies, helping to stimulate innovative economic growth in Wales.

The Ford Low Carbon Vehicle Transition Fund, administered by the Welsh Government as part of Ford’s legacy in Wales, will address strategic industrial technical challenges associated with low carbon vehicles.

Richard, whose business converts classic cars to run off an electric battery, is constantly swatting away investors. He is letting the business grow organically.

Hugo Spowers, the managing director of Riversimple

Hugo has also been inundated with investment, the last round netted £1.5m and included the Development Bank of Wales.

On the morning we spoke Hugo had just received an investment offer, and while he did not elaborate on it, it is fair to say it made him a little giddy.

The first nuggets of the Riversimple idea started in the last millennium. Then in 2001 Hugo set up OSCar Automotive, which then became Riversimple in 2007.

Both the cars and the company have been developed under his leadership on the basis of whole system design, from the first car, the Morgan LIFECar shown at the Geneva Motorshow in 2008, to the latest customer-ready Rasa.

And while it has been a long time coming, the road to the first cars coming off a production line are in sight.

Riversimple’s scale-up to mass production was boosted earlier this year with a collaboration agreement with tech giant Siemens.

It has now entered into a memorandum of understanding with Siemens UK with a focus on regional skills development, sustainability, and preparation for mass production.

Hugo expects the two-seater Rasa car factory to become operational in 2024, with a light commercial van production line coming on stream in 2025.

He then aims to have a larger family car in production in 2026 and by 2028 a string of five factories producing collectively 25,000 vehicles per annum, as well as having a research and development facility.

Subject to funding its initial two factories, each employing up to 220, will be based in Wales, and Siemens has already confirmed its plans to back Riversimple’s fundraising.

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The big difference between Riversimple’s cars and the hydrogen cars from established makers, such as Toyota’s Mirai, is that the Powys manufacturer builds its car around the fuel cell, rather than making a fuel cell for the car to replace a petrol engine.

This, Hugo explains, is because the big car manufacturers are tied into the production lines they have already established. Riversimple does not have this issue.

But Hugo is full of praise for Toyota.

“The Toyota Mirai is such a good benchmark, it’s a brilliant bit of engineering,” he says.

“Some years ago, I’d heard that they’d spent over $8bn on their programme so far. They did the Prius more than 20 years ago, and everybody was sort of scratching their heads thinking; ‘why are they doing that?’.

“And, of course, the one thing they’ve done in doing that is developed an electric platform, whereas all cars for 100 years, have had mechanical platforms and an electric platform, which is what you need for battery cars or for hydrogen cars. .

“So, as now everybody realises we need to move to electric cars, Toyota are suddenly years ahead of most .”

He is far more critical of European manufacturers, saying they have been more worried about their quarterly returns for the past 20 years, rather than looking at new technologies.

“They’ve been investing in lobbyists to delay the regulations. And now they’re caught with their trousers down really. And they are producing battery cars, because there’s no rocket science involved. We’ve been making battery cars for as long as petrol cars.

“The first car to do 100kmph was electric in 1899.”

Staying in his teaching mode, Hugo explains the first fuel cell dates back to 1842 in Swansea, so is not claiming the process Riversimple uses is revolutionary, it is more how they are going about using this technology.

By building the car around the fuel cell Riversimple can be lighter and not need as much fuel cell power as is needed for heavier, adapted cars.

The Riversimple hydrogen fuel cell cars will travel further than an electric car on one charge, and they are also quicker to ‘fill up’. However, there are very few filling stations in the UK, and that will need to change, and change fast if hydrogen is to take off.

Hugo is quick to point out that the infrastructure is already there in the form of petrol stations. Adapt these to provide power for fuel cells and there is no issue, he says.

There is one question that nags away when you hear more about fuel cells and using this option, as opposed to an electric car, everyone has power at home, everyone can charge their electric car from their house. Basically, we all have an ‘electric pump’ in the shape of a three-pin plug. But that is not quite the case, Hugo explains.

Hugo is enthusiastic about electric cars and believes they very much have a part to play in a greener future.

The charging of electric cars at home, trickling in overnight is great for the national grid, he says, but what’s not good for the grid is the power surge that would be created by multiple cars filling up from multiple charging points at a motorway service station.

“If you take a typical motorway services in the UK, a modest one with 20 pumps , it generously takes six times as long to charge a car even with a Tesla supercharger,” Hugo explains.

“So, you need 120 chargers. They’re each 120 kilowatts, that’s 14.4 megawatts. And that doesn’t mean much even to me, but a 14.4-megawatt substation is equivalent to the average consumption of 32,000 homes in the UK. For one motorway services. The idea of doing this, across the board with 1,000s of filling stations around the UK is just utterly delusional.”

The way Hugo sees the future is people using electric cars, with a trickle charge at home for the local journeys and then hiring vehicles, such as those with a fuel cell, for longer journeys.

“People don’t need to buy a Volvo estate. They commute for 48 weeks a year because they need it for two weeks of the year to go on holiday in.

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“You can have much more functionally specific vehicles and meet your other needs with other mechanisms. We’re getting much better at that sort of thing, and the internet has had a critical part to play in making car clubs a reality.”

Riversimple’s Rasa is a small, functional, two-seater, but it is a completely new type of car. The name comes from the Latin tabula rasa, which means ‘clean slate’.

“But it is not just with the vehicle technology, but also with the business model as well,” Hugo explains.

“The car is designed for people who operate in a 25-mile radius. It’s not an urban car, it’s a local car. You’re more car-dependent outside cities than in.

“Somewhere between three and five million cars in the UK operate in that sort of pattern. So, it’s quite a big market for a start-up company. It’s a very substantial market, but nobody makes cars for local use specifically.

“If you buy a petrol engine car, they can just as easily do motorway speeds. Typically, people would be using a Golf for the sort of thing that we think they could use a Rasa for.

“The Rasa is not equivalent to a Golf but it would replace a Golf in a two-car family, the car that’s only used for local shopping and all that sort of thing.”

Riversimple’s business model also means that they’re never really selling a car, they offer them as a subscription service instead.

“It’s a full-service offering and customers pay a fixed monthly price and the mileage rate and that is the only transaction they have in usership of the car.

“It would be their car just as much as a leased car is, but the title stays with us rather than the finance house. It includes road tax, it includes insurance, it includes fuel, when they fill up with fuel, they don’t pay we do.

“At the end of the contract, the car comes back to us and we supply it back to the customer, under another contract with a lower fixed, monthly rate, but the same mileage rate. And we supply second, third, fourth-hand customers.”

About 40 minutes drive north, in Newtown Richard Morgan’s business works in a very different way.

Electric Classic Cars do exactly as its name suggests, it takes a classic car and makes it electric.

“I’ve always messed around with classic cars and modified and raced them and did the British Historic Rally Championship for seven years,” Richard explains. “So, I come from a deep petrolhead background. About five years ago I knocked the rallying on the head, and I thought ‘what should I do next?’.

“I was kind of specking up a high-performance engine I was building because I used to build my own race engines as well. And during that process of trying to figure out how am I going to build this really complicated high performance, turbocharged and supercharged motor I came across electric motors and electric vehicles. I started thinking about, how hard would it be to actually put a motor into a car that was never designed to take one.”

The two Welshmen who are quietly at the front of the green car revolution

Richard Morgan is the founder of Electric Classic Cars, which is based in Newtown, and is now the largest converter of classic cars to run off electric batteries

At the time Richard was working in the energy efficiency industry, so this project brought together his professional knowledge with his personal interest.

Richard set about converting his own VW Beetle, documenting it online and on social media, and it quickly collected a cult following.

“Before I even finished that vehicle, I had one guy hassling me to convert a car for him next,” Richard said.

“This wasn’t a business at the time, it was literally just a continuation of my hobby, which is messing around with cars, and evenings and weekends. Once I finished that first vehicle, I then took on this project to go and convert, you know, this guy’s car. And it kind of snowballed from there.

“Halfway through that, I had another customer who wanted me to convert a [Porsche] 911 after that, and it just went on and on. And then I had two customers waiting, and then three customers waiting, and then it just kind of a hobby that got out of control. So, here we are now, five years later, and we’re the largest converter of classic cars in the world.”

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At the moment the company has a two-year waiting list with 60 cars on the order books, and Richard now employs 14 people. All this within five years of seeing if he could convert a car.

When the team converts a car it is documented and then they can sell a kit to adapt that model. Electric Classic Cars have been shipped these kits all over the world.

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One popular destination has been the game reserves in South Africa.

“They make the whole experience of being on safari much more serene, you’re closer to nature because you’re not hearing that horrible diesel engine,” Richard said.

“You hear birds tweeting, twigs crunching under the tyres, it’s a beautiful experience when it’s electric.”

Richard is looking at ways to take the business globally, and as a result, has linked up with businesses that have similar skills and ethos.

“If a client wants an electric Land Rover Defender in America, for instance, I mean, it’s quite difficult for us to convert that vehicle when they’re in America. So we partnered up with a number of companies around the world.”

At the moment Electric Classic Cars are selling about 20 to 25 of their kits a year and converting the same number of cars in the garage.

But the business is looking to expand again “the market is demanding it,” Richard says.

“One of the reasons why I started doing this as a business is because I wanted to be able to drive my classic cars as daily drivers.

“I’m not a not a hobbyist classic car owner that drives it on a weekend in July when it’s sunny. And I’m not an investor that buys a classic car that sts in an oxygen tent and never takes it out. I’m a classic car enthusiast that drives them every single day.

“I don’t have a modern car. I have a 1969 VW bus, I have a 1972 Beetle, and I have a 1996 old Land Rover. Those are my cars. I drive my classic cars every day as daily drivers, which means that they have to be reliable, low maintenance, if not zero maintenance, and just be as easy to live with as a modern vehicle. But they’re still classic cars.”

By going electric, Richard says, you eliminate the worries of the car breaking down, but it stays a classic.

The cost is, as you might imagine, quite big. The car is being completely converted into something that will require, Richard says, zero maintenance. For a car like a Fiat 500 the conversion starts at around £25,000, while for a Porsche 911 it would be closer to £65,000, rising to around £90,000 for a Defender 110.

The mid- Wales firm has attracted quite a few celebrity customers, some Richard can mention, and some he can’t. For example, the British actor Dev Patel – “really, really lovely bloke” – is having his Fiat 500 converted and it will be shipped out to Los Angeles. The company also converted the pop star Ellie Goulding’s wedding car.

“Electric vehicles are better than petrol vehicles,” Richard says.

“I’m saying that because I’ve been using electric vehicles for five years and before that, I was a madman petrolhead. I’m not an environmentalist, tree hugger-type person, I’m a crazy petrolhead that wants to go faster with more reliability.

“For me to convert to electric , and never ever think of going back, means that everybody else is going to convert because I would probably say I would have been the most difficult person to convert to electric.

“Now when I drive a diesel vehicle, it feels like riding a Neolithic dinosaur donkey, it’s just so dark ages it’s untrue. The whole world is going to go into electric but not just because of environmental reasons, but because it’s a better solution.”

Richard thinks that the more it is pushed on people the more they will resist, but if people were just given a choice of electric, petrol or diesel they would realise it is better.

However, we are being pushed. The car market is changing rapidly, and these two men, in their garages in Mid Wales are quietly at the front of the revolution.



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