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The future of electric vehicle development

Author : Stephen Lambert, Head of Electrification at McLaren Applied

28 May 2021

The widespread drive to cut carbon emissions has greatly accelerated electrification plans and led to unprecedented interest and investment in EV technologies. Yet, before the next transport revolution is truly able to come to fruition, there must be a concerted worldwide effort to address the material, technological and supply chain barriers that are still standing in the way of widespread adoption.

With this worldwide effort comes a need to develop new and focused supply chains, which provides an opportunity for UK businesses – whilst also being in line with the UK’s carbon reduction ambitions. 

Silicon Carbide 101 

Silicon carbide has been used in the semiconductor industry for a long time and has gained a reputation for being a promising technology without a clear application. But the rapid growth of the EV industry has presented a great opportunity to develop the technology for the fast-growing EV market. As a result, the technology has seen an increase in investment in recent years. 

One application for Silicon Carbide is in the manufacturing of inverters, which are key components of electric powertrains. Inverters convert DC voltage from the battery into AC to power the electric motor. Although most media coverage tends to focus on battery technology (as the energy store) or motor technology (as the component that moves the vehicle), enabling technologies like inverters also have a huge bearing on a car’s performance and efficiency. For instance, by engineering inverters using Silicon Carbide, manufacturers can expect an overall increase of system efficiency of between five percent and 10 percent. In part, this is achieved by Silicon Carbide producing much less heat, which drastically reduces a system’s cooling demands, but is also largely due to being able better to optimise the entire powertrain to be more efficient. It also brings a big weight reduction, which is a crucial factor in automotive design, as fine margins mean any weight loss can have huge benefits on performance. 

This low-weight, high-efficiency design has made the technology a staple in Formula 1 and Formula E, so it’s only a matter of time before we see this technology leveraged to help consumer and commercial EVs better compete with traditional vehicles. 

800V: the key to widespread electrification? 

Although most consumer EVs currently use 400V based architectures, we’re on the precipice of a widespread move towards 800V. This advancement will deliver fast charging, higher efficiency and longer range – crucially, at a comparable cost and a lower weight than 400V based powertrains. At present, most existing EV charging infrastructure is geared towards 400V vehicle architectures, but this will no doubt begin to change as 800V vehicle architectures become more common and consumers start expecting the ultra-fast charging that 800V enables.

Crucially, a more efficient inverter, enabled by Silicon Carbide, will be smaller and lighter. The higher switching speed of Silicon Carbide also allows for higher speeds, efficiency, and smaller and lighter motors. With lighter vehicles and more efficient powertrains, this will allow for a reduction in battery size. This is hugely significant, as the battery is often the most costly component of an EV, and can account for as much as 50 percent of the total cost of a vehicle. 

Silicon Carbide, along with the shift to 800V-based architectures, is vital in the transition to electrification. The next step is to ensure that the UK has a secure, globally competitive end-to-end supply chain to guarantee production and jobs in the UK. 

The UK Supply Chain 
Many comparable economies have already begun shifting focus to EV production; therefore, the UK must create a supply chain that’s able to serve growing consumer demand, or risk missing a huge opportunity.

EV batteries, and certainly the cells that are contained within them, are quickly becoming a commodity, so it’s no surprise there’s a lot of emphasis being put into scaling up production. However, an often-overlooked area for investment and growth lies in securing the supporting technology in the UK for more specialised elements of an electric drivetrain. Technologies such as the inverter, the DC/DC converter, the telematics and analysis, the charger and the charging network, will all be pivotal in ensuring drivetrain efficiency at lower weights. 

If the UK can react quickly enough, play to its strengths, share knowledge and capabilities, it can build supply chains to bring many of these enabling technologies to market, while playing a central role in the ‘green industrial revolution’, just as it did in the original industrial revolution.

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