Andy Palmer, the ex-Nissan and Aston Martin executive and industry heavyweight, is a man on a mission – driving Britain, and the world, forward to a zero-carbon future.
But, after he left Aston last year, he was at a crossroads. “What do I do now? Do I retire?” he tells us over Zoom. “I’ve got a few more years in front of me. Do I go straight back into another automotive CEO job – I got offered two or three? Or do I do something else?”
It was this predicament that led him to join Switch. “I was listening to commentators in the industry talking about electric cars like I was talking about them 15 years ago,” he explains. “And just getting rid of the tailpipe and assuming that everything is clean didn’t seem like the right dialogue. 15 years on, we needed to talk about net-zero carbon. Or if I’m in a punky mood, we’re talking about net negative.”
“I decided I wanted to play in that sphere. And what’s the fastest way to move from where we are now to net-zero? Basically, you move your buses, and your taxis, and your taxis and your vans that last one mile. You move those over, not only to EV but also to something that is net-zero carbon.”
It was here that Palmer started connecting the dots.
“That was the conversation I had with the Hinduja Group, and I knew that Ashok Leyland had EV capability and that they also owned Optare,” he explains. “By bringing them together you get a synergistic effect. You’d make things faster and you could add the van element because Ashok Leyland has had an ambition around EV vans.”
The result of this coming together was, of course, Switch Mobility.
“We’ve got two different types of customers,” explains Palmer. “You’ve got transport providers that buy buses and you’ve got logistics companies that buy vans. Irrespective of the customer type, you get net-zero carbon and the lowest total cost of ownership.”
Switch’s vans and buses, as Palmer makes clear, are exceptional pieces of kit. They’re better built than most traditional rivals, are all either net-zero carbon, and all have a remarkably low cost of ownership. But, at least for the moment, communicating that to buyers is harder than you’d imagine.
“Our customers are B2B businesses. So, you’re talking to transport operators, you’re talking to logistics companies and, first and foremost, they have the economics of the vehicle on their minds,” he explains.
“So, the first point on the agenda is going through a convincing story that we’ve got something that does have the lowest total cost of ownership. Some of them do, and increasingly so, have an eye on carbon footprint.”
“So, you need the general public to know that if they’re jumping on a Switch bus or if they’re having groceries delivered in a Switch van, they need to know what that stands for – it means that they’re not increasing their carbon footprint or the globe’s. So, there is a complex communication message there, and one that isn’t normally the domain of a commercial vehicle manufacturer.”
What might be more appealing to Switch’s customers are the company’s manufacturing and holistic approach to vehicle design.
“Our main selling point is the lightweight of the vehicles,” he explains. Palmer learnt “a shitload” about light-weighting while at Aston Martin, apparently.
“Rather than being a bus that sits on a truck chassis,” he continues, “we basically have a monocoque. With batteries, rather than using the traditional lithium phosphate, we use an MC which is nickel-cobalt, so we always go on the cutting edge of battery technology, because that allows us to have a high energy density, and therefore a smaller battery. That means you spend less energy charging it and it gives you more space for passengers.”
“We’ve got quite a significant capability around digital twins so we can model bus routes,” he continues. “And all of our vehicles are connected – we bring back about two terabytes of data every day and we can either look at that in real-time or we can do post-mission analysis. You combine all these things together and you get the lowest total cost of ownership because you’ve got less weight to push around, you’ve got less energy demand on the grid and costing you less, and you’ve got a vehicle that is perfectly sized to do its mission.”
Switch’s vans, Palmer explains, are slightly different but the level of customisation and customer-focus remains the same.
“First of all, you’ve not always got the van on the exact same route, so you need a little bit of margin. Secondly, if you were looking at a van, the first question you ask is, ‘Why don’t I just buy a Transit or a Sprinter?’”
“But they only offer three wheelbases and two heights, or whatever. Our offer is to configure the vehicle to your fleet’s needs. So, if you need a vehicle that is 1.9 metres wide, 1.7 meters high, or if you need a wider and stubbier one, we can do that for you.”
“We created a chassis that is basically a spaceframe, and that allows – within certain dimensions – almost infinite variability. So, we change our van to meet the needs of the customer, rather than the customer having to change their delivery patterns to meet the dimensions of the van – that’s the essential point.”
Understanding what the customer needs, however, goes far beyond a call with a sales rep for Switch. As the company is raking in two terabytes of data every day from its vehicles, it can dive very deep into vehicle usage.
“Generally speaking, it’s too much data,” says Palmer. “And therefore, you have to use some forms of artificial intelligence to boil it down to something that’s useful. At its simplest, you want to make sure that the decay of the battery is neither too big nor too small for the mission, and you definitely don’t want a battery that is going to run out.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “you don’t want a battery that’s significantly oversized because that means you’re dragging that weight around with you. So, you want to make a battery that is just so.”
However, there are a plethora of factors that can hinder the chances of getting the battery into this Goldilocks zone.
“It’s not a simple calculation, hence the data capture. You’re looking at temperature changes over time, you’re looking at the use of air conditioning, whether the windows are open – that increases drag – and driver behaviour can affect up to 20% of the range. So maybe you want to re-educate the driver to be more efficient or put software in place that controls that.”
“So, there are hundreds of parameters that can affect the size of the battery required. And what we’re trying to do is work out those that you can control in order for the battery to be as small as possible. The smaller the battery, the better total cost of ownership – basically 40% of the cost of the vehicle is in the battery, so you want to make sure that battery is the right size.”
However, according to Palmer, British businesses are facing significant challenges from abroad when it comes to manufacturing the cars of the future.
“There are 870,000 jobs in the UK associated with the motor industry. If we don’t build battery factories in the UK, we’ll lose our manufacturing capability, the car companies will move to where the batteries are,” he says.
“Very clearly, Europe has understood that and is putting massive incentives to bring battery factories to mainland Europe. So, it’s not a question of distorting the market, it isn’t a question of politics – it’s about making sure that the playing field is flat and that, basically, it’s as attractive to come to the UK as it is to go, for example, Germany. We have to maintain those jobs and those skills that support our home market.”
The skills gap is, in Palmer’s mind, as important as the lack of incentives to keep battery manufacturing in the UK.
“These are often highly bespoke vehicles,” he says, “so it’s not a question of getting anybody off the street and then being able to build our vehicles, they need quite a high degree of skill.”
“But, politically,” he continues, “we’re somewhat a laggard when it comes to incentivising the industry to stay and build vehicles here. There’s, generally speaking, a philosophy that ‘industry will pay’ and the reality is, yes, the industry will pay. But the playing field needs to be level and that requires government intervention in the same way as in China and the EU. And the government has now started investing in the US – it’s just levelling the playing field.”
However, one area where the UK is ahead of some of the competition is letting individuals and companies buy clean energy.
“Luckily, in the UK, you can buy green electrons but ultimately we want to get to a point where that [being genuinely net carbon negative] is scientifically true. So quite a lot of our work in India is connecting the factories to solar farms and, where we’ve got new factories coming, we want to make sure that they’ve got solar farms on the roof, as well.”
“We purposely haven’t made a lot of fuss about it yet but the whole purpose of Switch, the foundation on which it stands, is that the company is net carbon zero in 2021. We’re not talking about something that exists in a 2030, 2035, 2040 pledge – we’re doing it today.”
“But you can charge your vehicles with green electrons, run your factories on green electrons, but you can’t buy all your bits from the supplier, carbon neutral. So, you pick the suppliers that have got a plan and then you buy carbon offsets to cover the rest – but without all the flowery language about future pledges, you need to get on it now.”
But what does the future of driving look like for a man once dubbed ‘the grandfather of EVs?’
“I’d like to see us move to zero-carbon faster, honestly. Even the most aggressive of public policies get you out into electric cars and out of internal combustion engines by around 2035. But we can do that now.”
“The technology is mature enough, and it’ll get more mature. We have companies like us that are already net-zero carbon, so there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t say, for example, 2025, not 2035.”
“In my mind, governments need to say, ‘we need clean air, we need no CO2.’ They don’t need to create a buy or make or ban an electric car, or a fuel cell, or hot hydrogen because, for me, engineers work best when they’ve got a problem to solve, and they will solve it in many different ways. The way it is being interpreted in the UK is that we’re just going to electric cars in 2035, so the engineers will be working on those solutions.”
“But in Germany, Japan, American they’re going to be looking at other solutions, and we haven’t got that so we’re going to fall behind. As sure as death and taxes, EVs are not the only solution to running vehicles on zero carbon and sometimes there are better solutions – we need to be part of all those solutions.”