Andy Palmer is a leading figure in the global automotive industry, with a career spanning over 40 years, including COO of Nissan and President and Group CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda. During this time at the former, where he was named by Forbes as the world’s most “influential CMO” in the car industry, he took on additional responsibility for Nissan’s electric vehicle and battery business, which birthed what many believe is the first ‘proper’ EV, the Nissan LEAF.
For this reason, many within the industry have dubbed Palmer as the grandfather of EVs, championing electrification way before the wave we see today. Today, following five years at Aston Martin, he solely focuses on electrification as Non-Executive Vice Chairman of the Board at InoBat, a Slovakian R&D and battery production company with the long-term objective of serving the European market with new energy solutions.
Auto Futures got the chance to speak with Palmer, to reflect on his career and find out how life has changed since leaving Aston Martin and joining InoBat.
“At Nissan I was proud to lead the company’s first foray into the EV market with the Nissan LEAF and eNV200 during my tenure as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Planning Officer. But I felt I had unfinished business in this space,” he explains. “LEAF was ahead of its time and the first EV of the modern age, but Nissan didn’t get fully behind it to drive the technology to its full potential.”
“My time at Aston Martin taught me a lot; not just running a business, but also on the technology of sports cars. For example, EVs and sports cars both need low mass and low drag. In addition, sports car companies and commercial vehicle companies share the advantages and disadvantages of low volume and thus the need for frugal development costs.”
At Nissan, Palmer was responsible for establishing the Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), building three battery plants around the world. Bare in mind that this was back in 2014, where battery electric vehicles were virtually unheard of. These are just a few notable things that place Palmer as a serious industry figure for the evolution of the transport industry.
“You bring all this together and I think I have something to offer to the conversation on net zero carbon emissions and its acceleration through companies such as InoBat,” he adds.
Palmer’s new position at InoBat will see him continue his journey into clean energy, helping to develop technology that can help save the planet.
“Climate change is not one country’s problem; it is the world’s problem. In InoBat, I see some genuine opportunities to contribute to this existential issue we must all face up to.”
A Modern Polymath
Palmer is a man of many talents, which makes him a perfect fit for businesses on either side of the transport industry. Now with InoBat, he is able to leverage his experience and knowhow to approach net zero carbon issues from several perspectives.
In addition, it also allows Palmer to utilise InoBat’s more agile business process, being a startup that isn’t tied to a past and is able to operate far more quickly than a larger established automaker. Decisions are made far quicker and, as Palmer says, “there are no politics.”
“The team is motivated and expert in what they do and really passionate about making the world a better place. For most of my career I was the young energetic executive on a mission; now at Inobat I find I’m the oldest guy in the room and I hope that my observations and advice from 41 years in the automotive business bring some wisdom. Nevertheless, InoBat gives me the same energy that I’ve sought throughout my career.”
Palmer is evidently aware of the changing working environment and has welcomed it. From bringing the first modern EV to market with the LEAF, he understands the shift in focus from both traditional automaker and innovative startups. Through this, he gained his ‘grandfather’ title and become a key figure in the EV movement.
“Yes, some people have started calling me the grandfather of Electric Vehicles and I’m not sure whether to take it as an insult or a compliment,” he says. “When I started the LEAF project 15 years ago it was groundbreaking and very few companies were operating in this space. I remember when we announced the intent, one senior industry leader said that we may as well take a $1bn and throw it in the ocean; how wrong he was!”
At the time, Palmer and his team didn’t have many supporters, despite the science on the need for EVs being pretty stark and clear even then. Today, everyone is an EV advocate and I’m sure that the person who talked down the LEAF project is eating his hat.
The Road to a Net Zero World
Today, consumers are beginning to understand the technology and the differences between hybrid, plug-in and EVs. However, they are still expensive in comparison to internal combustion engine vehicles, which means the cost has to be brought down significantly.
“EVs are still expensive and this will continue as we progress down the battery ‘Moores Curve’ towards a cell target cost of £100/KwH which is when gasoline and battery costs are broadly compatible,” says Palmer.
EVs play a crucial role in the industry’s drive towards net zero carbon. However, Palmer believes that they are not the only solution to achieving these goals.
“We also have to encourage the development of fuel cells and synthetic fuels in tandem; we have to let Darwinism work,” he says. “Governments should define the problem and let engineers innovate the solution. Too many Governments are putting in place legislation that picks a technology winner; not the first time as I’m sure we all remember the Government’s drive towards diesel power.”
Palmer believes that countries that discourage this Darwinism approach will be “global losers,” due to losing the “first mover advantage.”
The car industry might have been a slow starter, but it is a symbol of change and it should be held up as an exemplar to other industries that also contribute to the production of carbon.
Can the UK Become a Leader in Battery Technology?
The battery market is there for the taking, despite huge investment in countries such as China. The UK has invested a lot of time and money into revamping its automotive industry through the latest spike in demand for electrification and innovative transport solutions, with a number of exciting collaborations and ventures.
However, Palmer believes that the UK is still some way behind other regions, with not enough being done by the government to invest and support the rapidly growing battery market.
“The UK certainly used to be a leader in battery technology through the invention of the Li-ion battery. Sadly it did not invest and exploit the technology in the same way as China, South Korea and Japan did,” he says. “The UK has a rich history of innovation and a poor history of industrialisation. The Government doesn’t invest in technology in the same way as other countries and the London Stock Market is not conducive to industrial start-ups.”
Although the industry employs 823,000 people in the UK, has a turnover of around £82bn and an added value to the UK economy of £19bn, he believes that, if the UK continues on its current course, the region could be left out of one of the biggest markets in the world.
This comes down to a number of things; government support, Brexit, the supply-chain, skill-shortage and Covid-19.
“It’s true that beyond the pandemic, other more familiar challenges remain; ongoing trade tensions, environmental pressures, technology shifts and, for the UK and our closest trading partners, Brexit and the looming end of the transition period,” continues Palmer. “The outcome of these negotiations will be fundamental to our sector’s ability to recover from the chaos wrought by Covid-19 – and to its long-term viability.”
The UK’s automotive sector is a melting pot of rich heritage and cutting-edge engineering. It is agile, flexible and competitive, with world-leading levels of efficiency. Last year, it generated more than £100 billion in total trade for the third consecutive year, as Britain’s biggest exporter of goods. In terms of export, the UK ships out vehicles, engines and components to more than 150 countries worldwide across all continents, illustrating its key role in international trade and, in turn, supporting thousands of highly skilled, high value jobs.
With ongoing economic and environmental concerns for the region, the UK needs to effectively restart and recover from the global pandemic and ensure new trade deals with key markets. Otherwise, the result could be catastrophic.
“How quickly automotive recovers from the shock of the pandemic will be decisive for Britain’s overall recovery and future prosperity, global influence and reputation,” says Palmer. “As well as potentially creating further skilled jobs, the sector might be able to be among the leaders in technological development and drive the transition to a zero-carbon economy.