May 26, 2024

You don’t have to be reinventing the wheel to be doing automotive R&D

Robin Taylor, a mechanical engineer and sector specialist at R&D tax relief consultancy ForrestBrown, calls on automotive businesses to rediscover functionality in this candid perspective on what actually drives innovation.

When the Ford Model T was first launched in 1908, it kickstarted the mass production of cars. But the journey in getting to that point was no mean feat. In the race to find commercial success, many other manufacturers alongside Henry Ford had long been jostling to find the ultimate power source for a vehicle that could be mass produced.

As hundreds of small manufacturers vied for pole position to create a car that could reach the masses, the automotive world exploded with a flurry of innovation. The range of vehicles included electric – which for a time was actually the preferred method for powering a car’s propulsion – and even steam-powered cars. But by the time Ford’s assembly lines properly inaugurated the era of widespread car ownership, these petrol alternatives had been marginalised.

Over the 20th century, the car was transformed from somewhat of a novelty into an everyday necessity. Innovation kept occurring, but the core parts remained relatively unaltered. The internal combustion engine, for example, remains with us to this day, as does the disc brake (which was first designed in the 19th century).

A clash of ethos
There has been a step-change in recent years, however. The latest developments to reach the automotive market are arguably the most significant since the introduction of the combustion engine. Long range fully-electric power, autonomous driving, personal transportation: the dreams of science-fiction readers have become a tangible and achievable reality for automotive manufacturers in the UK and globally.

I’ve spent nearly two decades working in the automotive sector and, like so many other interested observers, I’m excited about where the industry is going. But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there – I’ve increasingly noticed a clash of ethos in our industry. While some manufacturers deliver new features quickly, but with unpredictable and inconsistent results, others take a more cautious approach to provide, in the longer term, more revolutionary developments.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the UK automotive industry is worth approximately £15.3 billion to the UK economy. In such a huge and highly competitive market, it’s unsurprising that companies feel the need to make an impact – or be ‘disruptive’ – when introducing a new product to market.

Smoke and mirrors
Too often, though, this impulse manifests itself in superficially impressive gimmickry. This trend of adding tech for tech’s sake into vehicles, such as self-presenting handles or contactless opening, can be to the detriment of innovations which actually improve functionality and driver safety.

Big-ticket innovations like autonomous driving are exciting and could alter the industry in the long term. These big, PR-friendly initiatives coax companies into chasing what they see as innovation (but what could sadly manifest as mere novelty). Some of these novelties will advance technological capability, but some distract from a lack of genuine underlying innovation.

The trouble is, plenty of new vehicles aren’t hitting the mark from an engineering perspective – and it’s all in the name of providing something ‘new’. In the endless pursuit of maximum impact, some companies are skimming over the key tenets of usability and safety.

As to why companies choose the gimmick over subtler (but actually more meaningful) developments, I have my theory: it sells. Rightly or wrongly, some manufacturers stack all their chips on this as their costs of investing in everything from improved driver experiences and new gadgets through to revolutionary developments can quickly escalate – but there’s no real need for them to compromise on quality because R&D tax relief can help meet the costs when used strategically.

Driving innovation
R&D tax relief is a government incentive to reward innovation and fuel growth, and the criteria are purposefully broad. It includes creating brand new products, processes or services or changing existing ones. The relief is a valuable source of cash for auto businesses to accelerate their R&D, hire new staff and keep growing.

While less eye-catching innovations can get overlooked by companies when putting together an R&D tax relief claim, incremental improvements often result in R&D. Developing alternative lightweight materials to traditional body sealing products, or refining ingress/egress on side doors to aid with passenger access might not be as headline-friendly as whatever Elon Musk is up to, but it’s innovations like these that improve usability, sustainability and safety, and which could also be eligible for valuable R&D tax relief.

At ForrestBrown, we work with a manufacturer who is developing high power cell technology to provide a secure battery supply to the UK electric vehicle production market. Then there’s the product design studio who have produced an innovative smart child seat, with intelligent monitoring and remote control to maintain comfort and support throughout the journey.

You don’t need to revolutionise every component, feature or system within a vehicle for the end-product to be innovative or successful. You certainly don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be doing R&D, either. In fact, it’s this endless pursuit of maximum impact that compromises the safety, usability and quality of cars rather than enhancing them, and that’s something we need to steer well clear of.