Industry Interview, Interviews, Issue 44 - Spring 2012

Industry Interview: Lord Drayson

An entrepreneur with more than 25 years combined experience in the successful development of science-based enterprises, Paul Drayson is an engineer trained in the automotive industry. Founded in 2007 by Elspeth and Paul Drayson, for more than four years Drayson Racing Technologies has been devoted to pioneering the development of sustainable green technology in motorsport. just-auto editor Dave Leggett caught up with him to talk about his experiences and current projects.

 How did you get interested in motorsport?

I grew up in Kent, very near the Brands Hatch race circuit and as a boy I was taken to the racing with my dad and that’s where my interest in motorsport started. My interest in engineering was kindled by that, going to the racing, going into the paddock, the smells, the experience. That got me interested in the cars and in technology and that’s stayed with me through my life.

I went to university and studied engineering and started work in the car industry. I have a PhD in robotics and that came about because of my involvement with industrial robots in the car industry. I built a business around some of the technology that I learned with that and then went into pharmaceuticals after selling my first company and subsequently learning about pharmaceuticals from scratch and starting a new business again.

But I am trained as an engineer, specialising in production engineering and robotics.

And what about the low-carbon, environmentally responsible aspect to your projects? What ignited that interest?

Later in my career, when I worked as a government minister, the whole climate change issue was becoming much more evident as more data came out about things like the melting polar ice-caps. The data was becoming more inescapable in terms of conclusions about the adverse impact of human activity on the world’s climate. I was still racing at that time in the British GT Championships with an Aston Martin and we began asking the questions about how we can make our racing more green and less damaging to the environment. At that stage, in 2006, the way forward seemed to be through the use of bio-fuels and we went down the route of pioneering the use of second generation bio-ethanol fuel. We raced with that fuel through the British GT Championship in 2007, got a number of pole race wins and narrowly missed winning the championship – we were runners up.

And it was that experience of racing with green technology in 2007 that convinced me – because of the reactions to what we were doing – that motorsport can make a significant contribution to meeting the challenge of climate change. It can do that in two ways. Firstly, by providing a means of accelerating technology development. Motor racing has always been a source of advanced technology development that has then gone on to be used in road cars. And secondly, and even more importantly, it changes public perceptions. The motorsport associations can make green technology cool and exciting. A few scoffed when we went down the bio-fuel path, but when we started winning with it because it performed so well, it was taken seriously and we found that it was changing people’s perceptions about going green and that’s been maintained ever since. With electric cars I think perception is a big issue, so racing with electric cars both helps to changes perceptions and helps with the development of the technology.

And high performance electric cars also have a role to play in changing perceptions?

Certainly. When you think about the auto industry historically, premium high-end cars see innovations first and then that trickles down. EVs have been in an unusual position in that the technology has been applied initially in small city cars and that has meant the technology has a certain image. And those cars are in a very competitive and a price sensitive segment. It’s pretty important that the industry invests in solving these technology barriers to include developing and producing high-performance EVs. Cars like the Tesla Roadster can make a big difference to perceptions and we need more cars like that to propel the technology and get it employed in more segments of the market.

 Was the GT2 bio-ethanol car a difficult project to do?

Yes it was. We had a lot of reliability issues in 2008 when we went racing in the international series. The British championship in 2007 went well. We then worked with Aston Martin Racing on a new GT2 car for the international series and that had reliability issues with the engine, fuel system and so forth. And yes, it was difficult but in the end we got on top of those issues and then in 2009 we stepped up to the highest level of Le Mans style racing with the LMP1 car with Lola, and that was a flex fuel system that could run on second generation  bio-ethanol and conventional gasoline fuel.

Are people still interested in second generation bio-fuels having a role in motorsport? Where does that technology stand now?

They are interested in certain countries; in South America and North America, though not so much in Europe and particularly not in the UK. And that’s largely due to government [UK] policies on the repatriation of fuel duty. It looked at one stage like bio-ethanol would become an important part of the energy mix here in Europe but that has tailed off and there is much more interest here now in electric cars and hybrids.

With the bio-ethanol car you developed there was an experimental fuel system that involved carbon capture. Are you still looking at that?

That was an interesting system using material in the exhaust that would react with the carbon in the exhaust gasses and then be retained so that you could reduce the carbon emissions from the car. It worked well on the test bed but when we were running at racing speed the temperatures inside the exhaust meant that we got too much degradation of material. We had to abandon that project in the end because we just couldn’t make it work in the racing application, interesting project though it was.

Are there wider applications for that kind of carbon capture?

Well, yes, there is plenty of investment going into carbon capture and storage from coal-fired power stations and that’s based on the same principles. I don’t know of anyone else who has experimented with doing this on a car application. Certainly there is a lot of investment going into the efficiency and cleanliness of the Internal Combustion Engine and real progress has been made on that and that will allow the Internal Combustion Engine to be used for many years yet. But fundamentally, we have got to move to zero emission cars if we are going to meet our legally binding targets for overall CO2 emissions.

Doesn’t eking out greater efficiency for the Internal Combustion Engine make it more difficult for alternatives to emerge?

Yes. The Internal Combustion Engine has benefited from decades of investment to improve efficiency in manufacturing and therefore is way down the cost curve. It is very impressive how cost effectively the car industry can manufacture engines. In comparison, there is very little experience in developing the means of manufacturing cheaply electric drives or hybrid systems. They are therefore much more expensive at the moment and that’s why governments are active in providing incentives to consumers. But still, they require significant investment. The costs will come down as economies of scale are achieved, as sales rise and as investment in the technology increases, but it’s a classic case of a new disruptive technology that is not providing – to the consumer at the moment – as good a value as the established technology. Nonetheless, it is absolutely clear that the legally binding targets on climate change mean that countries need to have a significant proportion of cars on the road producing zero emissions. There is just no way around that and that’s why the car industry has got to develop these new technologies and find ways to make the products better and able to be manufactured more efficiently.

How is Drayson Racing Technologies (DRT) set up?

It’s a small company with half a dozen people designing and building a very high performance electric race car.  They designed and built all of the electric powertrain for the B12 [B12/69EV electric-powered LMP racing car] collaboration with Lola.  They are currently designing the electric powertrain for the Formula E car for next year’s championship.

And what are you mainly busy with at the moment?

Right now we’re all very busy with developing a car for the upcoming FIA Formula E – electric – Championship racing series in order to compete as a team. There’s a lot of work connected with the regulations also and how it will all work. In Formula E a draft set of regulations has been published that sets out rules under which electric racing cars for Formula E can be built. They specify things like the aerodynamics that are allowed, materials, minimum weight of the car, batteries, power of the motors, which then allow the engineers to design a car.

How would that be set up in terms of teams? 

It would be very similar to a normal type of championship, like in Formula 1, Le Mans, or IndyCar in the US, whereby teams would enter cars – which they would develop themselves or buy those cars from manufacturers and the cars would be specifically designed to the new regulations.

Are there many teams interested in competing in such a championship?

Yes there are. The FIA keeps that confidential. I would think there are not just racing teams interested but manufacturers of electric cars who are looking to sponsor teams and get involved in the development of the technology. It’s very exciting because we are at the birth of a completely new type of racing, a new racing championship, and you’ve got a completely new sheet of paper.

Unlike the established championships, there’s a whole new set of decisions to be taken to shape how it looks and operates from the start. A lot of things are being decided for the first time and it is a really interesting opportunity for motorsport engineering companies. And one of the companies we are working with is Lotus Engineering as Lotus has developed interesting sound synthesiser technology for electric cars – and the FIA has asked participants to include sound synthesisers on the cars.

And you are working closely with Lola as well?

Yes. Lola has also been a partner before on the B12 [B12/69EV electric-powered LMP racing car] and we are working with others, too.

But the details of the FIA Formula E bid are confidential?

Yes, that’s right. When the FIA are ready they will announce the structure for the new series, which teams are taking part and which technologies employed. As you can imagine, there is quite a range of views on the technologies that should be used and what the specification of the cars should be. In all types of motor racing different teams have different solutions to the same basic problem: how to go fastest. Some people might, for example, focus on a different type of electric motor or battery technology. Everybody is keen to ensure the rules develop in a way that allows them to compete most effectively.

When can we expect to see Formula E races starting?

I think we are looking at the second half of 2013. The plan is for eight races around the world, city races on city circuits specially set up for this type of racing.

Are there technical aspects to using electric cars in motorsport that make it additionally technically challenging?

Yes, there are. The main challenge is that with an Internal Combustion Engine, you have a fuel that has an incredibly high energy density. Therefore, in a conventional racing car, you are not that worried about energy. You know, for example, that if you put wings on the car for downforce, that will give you the ability to corner fast. And the fact that those wings increase the drag and therefore the amount of fuel that you have to burn to overcome that drag, you’re not too bothered about it, because you have a 70-litre fuel tank and you just turn the power up and burn the fuel to do that. That has actually made us quite wasteful with energy in racing because we are so used to the fact that this liquid contains so much energy and you just fill it up and there it is.

When you go to electricity, storing electrical energy is much more difficult. There is much less of it in the car and you have a 300 kg battery. Every joule of electrical energy that you can store you have to make the most of and you can’t waste energy overcoming drag.

So you have to have a completely different concept of the way in which you are going to design the car and that goes through everything. For example in aerodynamics you need to use movable aerodynamics – the wings change shape so that you can make them flat down the straight to reduce drag and put them up for downforce when cornering. And when developing the drivetrain you want to get maximum efficiency in the transmission of electrical energy from the battery through the system to the motors to translate that electrical energy to kinetic energy to propel the car. Getting that efficiency is key. And you are dealing with large amounts of energy due to the speeds you are travelling at – the B12 car has 850 horsepower with four electric motors driving the rear wheels. That means you are generating a lot of heat within the electric motors. The hotter they are the more efficient they will be, but if they run too hot they will fail. Managing heat and the cooling systems for the electric motors is very important. There are two cooling systems – an air one and a water one.

Designing all of that is a bit of a challenge; it is state of the art stuff. There are lots of new things we are having to learn and master for electric car racing. By contrast, for IC-engine racing we’ve been doing it for many years.

But that’s what makes electric racing exciting for me; it’s a completely new field and I want to be a pioneer and a leader in this field.

And I guess the pioneering nature of electric car racing must mean high initial development and set up costs? There again F1 isn’t exactly cheap…

Yes, that’s true, there are considerable costs in dealing with new technology but it is still considerably cheaper, say, than Formula 1. One of the things that the FIA is trying to achieve is that the Formula E series is sustainable – not just from an environmental viewpoint, but financially sustainable, too. They are looking at ways of designing the series so that costs are kept under control and the sport can provide a good return on investment for the investors and everyone involved.

I suppose Formula E would attract sponsors and investors who would not necessarily be interested in conventional motorsports?

That’s absolutely right. People who are involved in green-tech business, people who are involved in green energy – whether the generation of green energy, or things like smart-grid systems, the electrification of transport or other areas, it’s a big field. These are all business areas that wouldn’t normally consider motor racing as a good marketing platform to communicate what they do. But zero emission electric car racing is an ideal platform for some of them.

And electric car racing will also boost electric car technologies more generally?

Yes, I think that is a very important and fundamental point. Electric car racing encourages the use and development of new technologies which have the ability to change the way things are done and the way things are made. Manufacturing technology is a good example. There are new manufacturing technologies coming through the pipeline that electric car racing can use and I think they will have quite significant spin-off benefits. Because electric racing is new, the rules are more open and the ability to use new technologies is greater – you’re not restricted by many years of established ways of doing things which is the reality in many racing series – like NASCAR, where the rate of change in technology is very slow. Electric racing will be a great platform for new technologies, not just technology on the car, but new ways of making things, new approaches to business and with a focus on sustainability. There will be a revolution in the way things are done.

Obviously you and your company are heavily focused currently on electric car racing, but do you have thoughts on what might be the next big project? Could it be hydrogen fuel cell cars?

Possibly, yes. The revolution in the electric drivetrain is the area that we are really interested in. Hydrogen fuel cells are going to be part of the future. The challenge with hydrogen is not how you use it in the car – there has been plenty of work on fuel cells, stacks, the actual application of the gas. It’s a very high energy density gas. The problem is the storage and distribution of the gas. There are some exciting developments taking place. Storing the hydrogen gas in nano particles so that you could store them at ambient temperature and pressure is a really interesting idea. If that could be commercialised you could be easily pouring your hydrogen into a tank and not having to have highly pressurised solutions and that would hugely accelerate the use of hydrogen as a fuel source for cars.

In terms of the new technologies related to electric cars that you are working on, do the car companies seem interested in those?

Yes. One of the benefits that a company like DRT can provide to the big car companies is the opportunity to try things at an experimental level. We are building a car, testing it, using it and getting real life data. For example, we have valuable knowledge of electric motors, which are a vital part of the electric car’s future. All car companies need to know how new generation electric motors perform in tough conditions. It’s a way of trying new things.

To take other industries, pharmaceutical for example. About twenty years ago, you had the revolution in genetics and molecular biology. The emerging know-how and expertise was concentrated in small university departments and bio-tech companies. The big pharma companies worked with the small bio-tech companies to understand the new technology and transfer it to them. I see the same kind of thing happening in the car industry.

The car industry has huge investment in existing manufacturing processes which leads to fantastic efficiency and value for money for the consumer with a modern car. It’s a huge system that delivers that and it’s very capital intensive and slow to change. Finding a way of trying new things in smaller companies is a really important thing. I think you will see the growth of small companies like DRT providing the automotive industry with that kind of specialist knowledge and resource.

You’ve mentioned climate change, but did your spell in government provide any other particular insights?

Yes. One thing was being able to get an overall perspective on where different countries sit in the global competitive landscape. From that it became clear that the UK, and Europe as a whole, is facing a huge shift in global economic power towards the east in Asia. It is therefore very important for Europe and the UK to invest in those areas of industry and technology where we have a real competitive advantage and the possibility of achieving growth, exports and new jobs. And we have to be continually creating and inventing to come up with the next big idea and building new companies and new businesses on the back of it. We can’t compete on price. Places like China are growing rapidly and industries like automotive are going to focus much more closely on: what does the Chinese consumer want?

The UK has a very strong engineering base. To take motorsport for example, we are clearly the world’s leaders in motorsport engineering. And we need to exploit that as an R&D resource for our industry more generally. Some of the advanced engineering things we have learned through motorsport can be applied to clean-tech, to aerospace, marine and other areas.

Given the economic crisis and the need to rebalance the economy, we need to put more emphasis on manufacturing-led growth. This is something that the UK needs to do and that’s why I’m investing in it myself. This whole area of clean-tech and electric drivetrains is a classic area where the UK has a lot of expertise, it’s a growth market, it’s a market where there is real demand for the particular know-how the UK has and we need to make sure that is something we capitalise on.

The relationship between government and business is about there being a clear consensus about the measures that industry needs in a particular sector to ensure that it can compete, grow and attract investment from abroad. I think for example the success of JLR reflects the investment in products they have made at the added value end and with sophisticated engineering, hybrid technology. We are known throughout the world for our premium car brands.

The base we have now is based on the two B’s: our brands and our brains. Where companies have developed strong brands that command good prices, combined with continuing to invest in their know-how, their skills, then world class products are the result. We now know, as an economy, that we have to build on our manufacturing base because going down the financial services route is not enough in itself.

Are you still active in politics?

As a backbencher and member of the House of Lords, yes, but not front-line politics. I’m really concentrating on the business side of things these days.

What gives you the biggest buzz, being responsible for a green motorsport technology driven company like DRT or getting behind the wheel and racing yourself?

For me now, it’s building the company. I was lucky enough to go to Antarctica over Christmas and see for myself the impact of climate change. It’s one thing reading the graphs and seeing the data, but when you see it for yourself, it really brings it home to you. I’ve worked in science and technology all my life and the thing that excites me about DRT is the opportunity to do something that is really important, to accelerate innovation, change people’s perceptions and make them believe that it is possible to solve this problem and have fun and a good life as well.

As a politician I learned that you don’t get far telling people what they can’t do or making them feel guilty. It’s much more effective to come up with solutions and say ‘look, do it like this and you can have the best of both worlds’. But to do that we have to invest in the technology. The car industry has a responsibility to be part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem.

Being part of that and making it happen is a really worthwhile thing. What gives me a buzz is when I show my twelve-year-old son the design of the Formula E racing car and he says ‘that looks really cool dad, I’d like to be able to drive that’. And that’s the next generation; they’re the ones that are going to have to live with these problems.

But, hey, I do still love to get behind the wheel. There is nothing more intense than racing and I love it. However, the ability to really make a difference, you can’t do that by just racing a car.

Lord Drayson and electric racing car

Lord Drayson

President of the Motor Industry Association, Lord Drayson is the co-founder and owner of Drayson Racing Technologies (DRT).

An entrepreneur with more than 25 years combined experience in the successful development of science-based enterprises, Paul Drayson is an engineer trained in the automotive industry. A graduate of Aston University, Drayson had already built and sold one successful business backed by 3i plc when he met Professor Brian Bellhouse, as well as Drayson’s future wife Elspeth at Oxford in 1993.

Over ten years they built PowderJect Pharmaceuticals Plc into one of the UK’s most successful biotechnology businesses. The company grew from three to more than 1,000 employees, floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1997 and was the first UK biotech company to achieve profitability in 2002, before its acquisition for £550 million in 2003.

Having chaired the UK’s Bio Industry Association for two years, in his political career Drayson focused on policies regarding science and innovation. In 2004 he was appointed a Life Peer and in 2005 Defence Procurement Minister by Prime Minister Tony Blair with responsibility for the UK’s Defence Industrial and Technology Strategies.

In 2004 Paul started motor racing. In 2007 he competed in the British GT sportscar championship, racing a unique bio-ethanol fuelled Aston Martin DBRS9, achieving a historic first win for a bio-fuelled race car, and coming second overall in the British championship. In November 2007 he took a leave of absence from the Government to compete in the American Le Mans Series in the United States, a key step towards his goal of racing in the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race.

Paul returned to the British government in October 2008 as Science Minister with responsibility for the UK’s science and innovation policies. During his period in office Paul established the UK Space Agency, the Centre for Defence Enterprise, the Innovation Investment Fund and the Office for LifeSciences.

Since 2009 Paul has competed in the American, European and Asian Le Mans Championships, and driven at Le Mans, Sebring and in the Petit Le Mans endurance races. In 2010 he won outright at Road America, and with his team Drayson Racing came third overall in the inaugural Intercontinental Le Mans Championship, campaigning a unique 225 mph Flex-Fuel Lola-Judd V10 LMP1 racing car.

Founded in 2007 by Elspeth and Paul Drayson, for more than four years Drayson Racing Technologies has been devoted to pioneering the development of sustainable green technology in motorsport.

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