‘There is need for pragmatism in the context  of a roadmap’

by Murali Gopalan 03 Jan 2022


He is referred to as the godfather of electric vehicles but that does not stop Andy Palmer from sounding a note of caution. “My point is that just electric is not a panacea solution,” says the Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Switch Mobility, the electric arm of Ashok Leyland.

Neither is hydrogen a panacea solution, which effectively means that whenever “you look at technology, you always have to look at the side-effect or the unintended consequence”.

Palmer, who was responsible for the Nissan Leaf, admits he is a huge advocate of EVs but is quick to point that if “you just say EV is the solution and you stopped there”, then the unintended consequence of that is “you are creating” carbon in the manufacturing as well as charging phase, and even in the end of life. 

“So what you have got to do is you have got to add an and and not an or . . . so you have got to say it is an EV and we need to drive through the manufacturing to zero area. You have got to charge the vehicles with sustainable electricity,” explains Palmer in a video interview. 

The simple point being made is just saying EV would actually expend more carbon in the beginning and over 
time it obviously gets better as a crossover point. While 
“lots of people” will argue if it is a crossover point at 10,000km or 50,000km, this is irrelevant to Palmer 
since what “you have to do is drive out the carbon from 
the beginning”. 

It is this reality that has had him propose an idea that globally “we should have” a carbon label that clearly explains basically what the carbon footprint of the vehicle is using average energy generation for a country or sustainable energy density. 

“We should then explain very clearly — almost like 
we do in food with the amber, red, green type of traffic light system — whether this car is really net zero neutral, net zero carbon or is it simply zero emission from the tailpipe,” continues Palmer.

It is that complexity which he says he was struggling with 15 years ago and which commentators are struggling with now. “I say something like basically EVs make carbon and the EV haters jump on it and the EV lovers jump on it,” he laughs. And all this when he is trying to make the point 
that it has got to be EV and . . . or hydrogen and — the and is always about driving the carbon out of the manufacturing and charging supply chain.

“I am a pragmatist and happy to go step-by-step but I also am not happy to mislead the customer,” says Palmer. The customer cannot buy an EV and assume that everything is hunky-dory. 

“No, your carbon footprint has improved but it is not zero. And if we are to take humanity to address the climate crisis, then we all have to have an awareness of our carbon footprint and what we have to do in our lifestyle to address it. That is my point,” he says. 


In November, Switch Mobility supplied 40 electric buses under the FAME-II scheme to the Chandigarh Transport Undertaking. On an average, this fleet will save 650,000 litres of diesel each year while reducing 1,700 tonnes of carbon emissions. Ashok Leyland through Switch will operate and maintain the fleet and charging infrastructure.

Food for thought
This is precisely why Palmer likes the food label analogy since it gives customers a good understanding about 
what they are eating in order to make conscious decisions. The same principle should be extended to all vehicles where they should be told something like this is “an amber and even though it is an EV, it still has a lot of carbon . . . or this is green”. 

According to the Switch Mobility CEO, the drive towards net carbon zero or zero C02 is an “inevitable track” but that does not necessarily mean banning the internal combustion engine (ICE). “I think there is a big difference actually. You can either take it from an incremental point of view which is a step towards CNG or LPG or as a more radical point of view where you use what I term as hot hydrogen,” he explains.

In Palmer’s view, one of the really interesting technologies for trucks in particular is basically the hot hydrogen solution because “what you are doing is essentially making use of all of that legacy investment with relatively small modifications”. 

It makes a lot of sense because the investment is comparatively light for the heavy duty truck manufacturer. The transition can also be made quickly since there is no need to create a whole new infrastructure. Hence, adds Palmer, hot hydrogen is “in my top right hand segment” as technically good and net carbon zero and “I would promote that” as an alternative to EVs particularly in the heavy goods vehicles space. In the same context, he believes that e-fuels or synthetic fuels are interesting and drives home the point with an example. 

“I came to India on an aeroplane and you cannot create an electric (plane) to fly that distance. There is the possibility that you take carbon out of the atmosphere or out of biodegradable mass and turn it into fuel, which you then burn. It is not zero tailpipe but it is net carbon zero.”
Hence, it becomes important for policymakers/politicians to understand that the problem here is CO2. It is then up to engineers and scientists, not just from the car industry, to look for the best solutions. 

Where it goes wrong is when politicians impose solutions. So if a politician turns around and says “we are going to go 100 percent EV and even though I am a huge advocate of EVs, I think that is the wrong decision”. 

This is because there are going to be applications where e-fuel or hot hydrogen or the fuel cell is going to be a better solution. “Or 20 years from now, there are going to be a bunch of solutions that we do not even know about today,” says Palmer.

It is in this context that he often uses the analogy to Darwinism which is all around the survival of the fittest. Let the engineers and scientists bring different ideas to the table and the consumer will ultimately decide the best one “and it will be that that lives”. 

As he puts it, “I suspect that at the end of it, it won't simply be electric. There will be other technologies and probably the internal combustion will be non-carbon and could well be part of that solution.” In the Indian scenario, this is particularly relevant given the constant clamour for EVs even while manufacturers have made substantial investments for cleaner technologies in petrol and diesel.
“I think that is why if you want to transition your strategy around sunk investments, that to me is why the hot hydrogen solution is so attractive. Because you are ending up with essentially a petrol or diesel engine which is modified for hydrogen that utilises 90 percent of the investments already made for Euro 7,” says Palmer.

It has a cost base which is very similar to Euro 7 and makes for a very quick and straightforward transition to a net carbon zero and “for me it frankly it makes a lot more sense” than the fuel cell. Maybe fuel cells are the long-term solution but at this transition strategy, he believes that hot hydrogen makes a lot of sense especially in the medium and heavy duty segment.

While making it clear that he is no expert on India or trucks, Palmer says anything that encourages a transition and improvement should be embraced. “I know India has made quite a significant movement towards CNG and that is to be applauded. Likewise, if I look to the UK, the ethanol mix has recently moved from five to 10 percent almost seamlessly,” he adds.

While that is not solving the climate crisis, it is still 
helping in a way. “So I think there is a need for pragmatism as long as it is in the context of a roadmap,” says Palmer. Urge him to do some crystal ball gazing on future fuel trends and he thinks small, and up to heavy, SUVs as well urban buses will end up electric. 

“And then as you go above it, because electric does not really like weight, into the heavy goods vehicles, you are more likely to end up with some form of a hydrogen solution,” he forecasts. E-fuel meanwhile could have some interesting possibilities in the sports car market “where you are still looking for an emotional yet expensive product” as well as in aerospace. 

“So for me, your core is electric but around the edges for specific solutions where EV is not optimal, then you have to allow alternative solutions,” says Palmer.
Whilst on the subject, the issue of talent crops up especially when electric is a different animal altogether and calls for specialised skills. He refers to a column he had recently written about workshop technicians who essentially do not fix cars with wrenches anymore but with iPads. “Now you need a masters degree in electronics to fix these cars,” he exclaims. 

As Palmer elaborates, the role of the engineer has changed dramatically and these days there virtually isn't a single mechanical mechanism that does not have electronics and software attached to it. 
“And so we have to create engineers that are more generalists. Basically going to university and studying mechanical engineering . . . I don't think it's part of the future. I think you have to understand electric engineering, production engineering, software engineering and often things like chemical engineering,” he says. 

Talent does not come in cheap either and a lot of this 
finds itself in competition yet again with smartphone makers. “You are in competition with the Apples and Googles of the world,” says Palmer. That effectively is the reality of the times. 

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's December 15, 2021 issue.


magazine image

Latest Auto industry updates and news articles