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Six East Anglian companies shaping the future of transport

PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:49 29 March 2018

Equipmake at Hethel Engineering Centre. Electronics engineer Javier Vara testing one of the motors. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Equipmake at Hethel Engineering Centre. Electronics engineer Javier Vara testing one of the motors. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

From cars made of plants to a transport app which knows how you take your coffee, East Anglian companies are pushing the boundaries of transport – both public and private – to reform it for the coming decades. Bethany Whymark looks at innovative companies driving change in the industry.

Delegates take part in the Innovation Workshop at the Futuristic Transport conference. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDelegates take part in the Innovation Workshop at the Futuristic Transport conference. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

From air quality and oil resources to decreasing space on the roads, there’s no shortage of reasons why change is imminent in our transport systems.

On Tuesday the business, energy and industrial strategy committee hosted a session which saw executives from Ofgem, National Grid and the Energy Networks Association quizzed on developing the market and infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Questions included how increased uptake of electric vehicles could affect the grid, how extra capacity can be managed, and planned investment.

Companies in East Anglia are actively participating in this field and many others which could change the way we travel, from testing new vehicle materials to developing integrated, smart public transport systems.

John Fagan, chief technical officer at Axon Vibe. Picture: SuppliedJohn Fagan, chief technical officer at Axon Vibe. Picture: Supplied

Many were showcased at the UEA and Hethel Innovation’s Futuristic Transport event last week – and here we take a look at the transport innovation in our region.

READ MORE: Conference explores region’s role in future of transport

Axon Vibe: a ‘fully integrated’ transport system

Axon Vibe is plotting the future of public transport.

Justin Ott, chief executive of Spark EV Technology in Newmarket. Picture: Spark EVJustin Ott, chief executive of Spark EV Technology in Newmarket. Picture: Spark EV

Based in Switzerland with a 10-strong team of engineers in Norwich, the firm has developed a smart technology system which can collate information about users – from their commute to their favourite coffee – which is currently being focused on improving public transport journeys. It can hold information about a user’s travel habits and automatically keep them updated on transport schedules and delays. A trial of this “smart travel assistance” is currently being conducted with a Swiss public transport provider.

Chief technical officer John Fagan said one eventual aim is to join forces with bike share and car share companies to provide a “fully connected” transport system.

“Public transport has fixed schedules and a complex ticketing system. Kids born today will look back and think the ways we used to move ourselves around were completely crazy,” he said.

Mr Fagan believes in a future system of “mobility as a service” which could render personal transport obsolete – where users “subscribe” to a public transport service they can use on demand with tech to manage their journeys in real time.

The Linspeed project, involving Coventive Composites, UEA and others, is exploring the applications of linseed (or flax) in vehicle manufacture. Picture: Simon FinlayThe Linspeed project, involving Coventive Composites, UEA and others, is exploring the applications of linseed (or flax) in vehicle manufacture. Picture: Simon Finlay

Spark EV: optimising electric vehicles

Spark EV Technology, based in Newmarket, knows more than most about the operation of electric cars.

After recognising concerns among fleet operators over the adoption of electric vehicles, it has developed a journey prediction and route planning tool which deploys artificial intelligence to assess how much power a vehicle or driver uses to determine how far it can travel on a charge.

Spark EV claims its technology can help drivers such as home care providers or delivery fleets to increase their fuel efficiency.

Connected Energy chief executive Matthew Lumsden. Picture: Connected EnergyConnected Energy chief executive Matthew Lumsden. Picture: Connected Energy

It is available in the UK and is also used in Scandinavia.

Chief executive of Spark EV Justin Ott said growing concerns around deteriorating air quality, linked to emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles, were driving legislation change and the popularity of electric vehicles. “But to be successful, this switch to electric power needs to overcome key concerns, such as around range anxiety, charging infrastructure and cost. The good news is that technology innovation and investment is helping accelerate change,” he said.

Coventive Composites: the hidden power of plants

For Coventive Composites, it is not just what a car is fuelled with that makes it ‘green’ – but also what it is made of.

Johan Herrlin, chief executive of ITO World.
Photo: Rob Howarth, Anglia Picture AgencyJohan Herrlin, chief executive of ITO World. Photo: Rob Howarth, Anglia Picture Agency

The company investigates uses for biocomposites – improved materials made by combining at least two others, one of which must be natural – in vehicle construction, from windscreens to mud flaps.

The company is partnering with organisations including UEA and the Adapt Low Carbon Group, on the Linspeed project to investigate the potential of flax (or linseed) and other biocomposites as component materials for sports cars.

It has managed to develop a reproducible method to treat the biocomposites to reduce water absorption, which increases the products’ utility.

Geoff Foulds, senior development engineer at the Chesterfield-based firm, said: “A lot designers love the aesthetics and sustainability, but because the biocomposites are low-volume and more expensive they often lose interest.”

Equipmake at Hethel Engineering Centre. Managing director Ian Foley. Picture: ANTONY KELLYEquipmake at Hethel Engineering Centre. Managing director Ian Foley. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Connected Energy: energy storage solutions

As more electric vehicles hit the roads their charging demands could put strain on the National Grid – but Connected Energy has developed a tool to help.

The firm, which employs around 12 people at its technical centre at Hethel Engineering Centre, reuses electric vehicle batteries to create energy storage systems.

The systems are used to balance out energy usage and demand – for example holding extra energy for rapid electric vehicle charging points to prevent spikes on the National Grid, and allowing people generating renewable energy at their business premises to store it for their own purposes rather than sending it to the Grid.

Chief executive Matthew Lumsden said: “There will certainly be a part for energy storage to play in the future alongside electric vehicle charging infrastructure because the chargers are getting more powerful.

“There will be spikes in energy usage which storage can level out.”

ITO World: Developing ‘mobility as a service’

Ipswich-based ITO World is using data visualisation to help shape our public transport networks.

It collates and visualises real time data on transport systems which it has shared with companies including Apple, Vodaphone and the Department for Transport.

Its arsenal includes data on bike share schemes around the world, which is available on Apple Maps for more than 150 cities, scheduling data for UK public transport journeys, and a visualisation tool to help public transport planners and operators improve their networks.

The former Future50 company also partnered with bus company Arriva to provide real time data for its 4,000 buses outside London, for a Google transport tool.

In a blog of predictions for transport in 2018, ITO World chief executive Johan Herrlin said the development of bike and car sharing schemes will start to accelerate and the “mobility as a service” market will begin to mature with more partnerships between the public and private sectors.

Equipmake: powering a fully electric bus

As more of us are encouraged to use buses over cars, reducing emissions from these vehicles will become a more pressing issue.

Norfolk firm Equipmake is among those leading the charge in fully electric bus technology. After being awarded a £1.8m government grant last year to advance its research into heating and cooling systems for electric buses, the Hethel-based firm anticipates it will be ready to trial its technology with its vehicle partner in South America by mid-2018.

The company believes it has hit on some potentially novel methods of reducing the energy requirements of electric buses, which could drive down their prohibitive running costs.

Following the awarding of its office for low emissions vehicles (OLEV) grant, Equipmake managing director Ian Foley said growing public knowledge about air quality problems had driven a “political will and desire” for all-electric buses.

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