Car makers have been building internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels for almost a century and a half. That's 150 years devoted to the development and refinement of just one core technology, the harnessing of ‘power by the explosion of gases', as the 1854 British patent put it.
Now they have to swap that technology for something very different – the transition to electric or hybrid vehicles – and get the job done within the next decade. The UK has set a target of 2030 for all new cars and vans to be electric or hybrid. That's just nine years to bring about a revolution. What is more, this is a global shift. At least 17 countries have announced zero emissions targets for transport with deadlines of 2050 or earlier, and more will certainly follow suit.
This is a huge ask. All of the engineering knowledge and skills and the countless billions of dollars of accumulated investment devoted to fossil fuel power have to be redirected to a radically new goal. Is that even possible?
FIND A MODEL FOR RAPID CHANGE
It is true that the auto industry is accustomed to developing things fast. The average length of time for the development of a new model has been cut from around five years in the 1980s to more like two years now. But electric mobility is an alternative technology, with different components, different supply chains and a need for very sophisticated digital control systems. The transition challenge is immense.
The auto industry needs an organisational model for rapid change. And car makers will have to ask themselves, where do we find real-world experience of building something entirely new very quickly?
One example might be the construction industry. Consider a massive project like building an Olympic park, made up of many unique structures, with a lot of associated infrastructure and supporting services, and all to be delivered to a deadline that is non-negotiable. Could that be a model?
As it happens, construction uses a tried and tested approach to meeting these kinds of demands. This is the scope-resources-time model, and it says that if you reduce a project's scope, or increase its resources, then the timescale can be shortened. It is on the resources side of the equation that auto manufacturers have an opportunity to use their enormous financial power to speed up the process. Analysts estimate that the biggest players have probably already spent around $70 billion each on developing new electric vehicles, and that figure will only grow.
ADAPT PROCESSES TO MEET THE CHALLENGE
But maybe money alone is not enough. What about cases where companies have changed their processes to meet seemingly impossible deadlines?
The clearest example here is staring us in the face, in the form of Covid-19 vaccines. Most vaccines take more than 10 years to develop, yet Covid vaccines have taken less than a year. This has been thanks in particular to the way that pharmaceutical companies, researchers and healthcare providers have been willing to do many things simultaneously that are normally done in sequence. This is another version of the ‘parallel processing' model that made computers work so much faster.
BUILD ON NATURAL ADVANTAGES
Finally, as any project planner knows, a programme can be fast-tracked if you can find a natural advantage to exploit. In the case of Covid vaccines, the natural advantage was that the key technology of gene sequencing was already up and running, allowing the virus DNA to be sequenced only 10 days after the first cases were identified.
When it comes to electric cars there is a different natural advantage, which is that their engines are already well understood and very simple. The average electric drivetrain contains about 20 moving parts, compared with around 2,000 in an internal combustion engine. That doesn't help solve the challenges of software for vehicle management, or battery capacity, or power infrastructure – but it sure makes engines easier to manufacture.
So, there is a plan. Exploit the power and the potential that is already there in the electric vehicle business – and then put the pedal to the floor.