Joanne Hopley talks about the future of automotive.
The automotive sector has always been an area of interest - it is a constantly developing, cutting-edge and consumer-level industry which affects and influences our everyday lives. Applying a background in physics to ‘real world’ manufacturing and research was hugely appealing and being able to practice in an area in which you have a natural passion, is also deeply rewarding. The opportunity to open and develop an automotive practice at Keltie which blends personal and professional interests was something I could not turn down.
One of the most exciting and engaging aspects of working with clients in the automotive sector is the ‘reality’ of the technology involved. You see, hear and read about automotive technology all the time - it is an industry with a devoted following. The fact that vehicles and vehicle technologies are part of our everyday lives makes them very easy to engage with versus something we do not come into contact with on a regular basis.
Also, working with engineers in the automotive sector is hugely rewarding - it is an industry that attracts people who are both interesting and approachable. Meeting and working with them means that we, as attorneys, are constantly learning from their expertise. Within automotive - as with many sectors in which we work - there is a desire to share knowledge and if you have a personal interest in the field, it is hugely rewarding.
Whilst we are not there just yet, it has to be battery technology. As a technology, it is not far from being as ready as the transition to fully-electric vehicles requires - which may provide a global solution to emission issues.
There is no doubt that the industry has come a seriously long way. The development and evolution of hybrid technologies have allowed us to progress forward away from harmful combustion engines. As a transitory phase between internal combustion engines and fully-electric vehicles, hybrids have certainly promoted a different approach to vehicle ownership and allowed consumers to buy more environmentally-conscious, but we are perhaps still some way from mass-market electric vehicles which overcome customers’ concerns about range. Manufacturers needed to do something to progress from internal combustion engines but they are still working towards vehicle technology which is sustainable for long distance travel, and will make electric more appealing to infrastructure-wary buyers.
The other element of the industry which has progressed enormously in the last two decades is safety. Provided, of course, that they are operated safely, cars are actually incredibly safe. Developments in airbag technology have been phenomenal with injury and fatality rates lower than in previous years. We have also seen game-changing development in pedestrian protection features in vehicles for example advanced sensor technology and bonnets which absorb more kinetic energy in the event of a crash with a pedestrian.
One of the main focuses for the sector in the near future must be to put in place the infrastructure which will alleviate the issues people have with buying electric vehicles - namely ‘range anxiety’ and the readiness of frameworks to keep vehicles charged. At the moment, buyer behaviour tends to lean towards hybrid models as consumers make concerted efforts to buy more eco-friendly, but are still wary of their ability to run a fully electric vehicle effectively.
The innovations we are seeing come through the large-scale transition to electric vehicles and the ‘connected car’ philosophy mean that we are coming to see vehicles more as extension of our homes, than a standalone entity merely used for moving from one location to another. Modern vehicles are fitted with the same or more technology as we find in electronic devices inside our homes, with apps and widgets playing key roles in how we use our cars. This coupled with enhanced vehicular connectivity and data-sharing means that our vehicles are much smarter than they have ever been. However, there are still elements of technology we are yet to fully exploit within our cars. In future, we may see communications and satellite technologies used more extensively for better, real-time traffic information to improve the efficiency of our transport systems. The technology exists now, but traffic jams and ineffective navigation routing would suggest that there are improvements to be made.
We expect to see more widespread use of advanced information sharing between vehicles, or so-called ‘fleet sharing’, where vehicles take information from others and process it in real-time in order to avoid traffic-heavy routes for example.
The use of combustion engines will continue in applications other than automotive, so we would not expect to see a wholesale reduction in the use of fuel-driven engines.
We anticipate a substantial increase in applications for intellectual property protection in software systems related to the control of batteries within hybrid and electric cars. As important as the actual structure of the battery in terms of delivering efficiency, these control systems are a crucial aspect in overcoming some of the issues preventing a greater uptake in electric vehicle purchasing. We are likely to see more software companies, independent of OEMs, move into automotive sectors as more advanced power management applications are required.
To truly affect a widespread change in consumer behaviour, everything needs to align together with enough infrastructure to allow people to benefit from changing to environmentally-conscious vehicles. To see real benefits and promote the successes of developments in technology, infrastructure, cars and buyer behaviour need to come into line simultaneously. Whilst enthusiasts may be disheartened to see the internal combustion engines confined to the history books, the lessons and technologies we have developed through its use have been invaluable in developing new systems to combat issues we currently face. We are seeing a necessary evolution in automotive technology which will surely lead to significant scientific development and a more sustainable future.
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