Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer has described the government’s strategy for Brexit as “laughable”, its EV-focused policy as “non-sensical” and the idea of full autonomy reaching reality in his lifetime as “absurd”.
Speaking at the Driving the Future event in London, backed by Aston Martin, Palmer also admitted that the certainty of a No Deal Brexit this year would be preferable to the current uncertainty of negotiations with no clear outcome dragging on.
Palmer on Brexit: ‘I’d rather leave with No Deal than drag negotiations on’
Having planned for Britain to leave the EU at the end of March and again now at the end of October, Palmer believes that clarity would likely be more beneficial to Aston Martin than extending negotiations, even if the latter offered the prospect of better business conditions in the long-term.
“Every time we have to prepare to leave it ties up working capital and brains on something that may or may not happen,” he said. “The car industry has proved itself very adaptable, from dealing with tsunamis in Japan to currency problems in Russia, but the issue with Brexit is we don’t yet know what problem we are trying to solve.
“First and foremost I think we now need certainty. I think business was pretty clear that it would prefer a deal with free trade with Europe, and it is true we are looking at a cliff-edge without one, but at this stage a decision is better than no decision.
“It’s not great, but we have modelled No Deal and run the scenarios. What we find harder to work with is goalposts that keep moving every six months. We need an outcome, and the truth is that we have debated our negotiating tactics in public, while the EU27 have worked with consensus and executed their negotiations brilliantly. Our Brexit strategy has been laughable.”
Battery electric vehicle focus “non-sensical”
Palmer also hit out at government strategy around future powertrain technology, and in particular its singular view that electrification is the answer to all transport environmental issues.
“EV is one route, it is not a panacea. The bit that pisses me off is when they try to pick a technological winner,” said Palmer. “The UK is trying to get on the front foot and say it wants to be a leader in electric vehicle technology but the truth is that nobody knows what the right technology is for 20-30 years time.
“Politicians can’t be taken seriously if they talk about 30-40 years ahead,” he added. “They are concerned with taking power and staying in power over a relatively short time, and they know they won’t have accountability over the much longer-term.
“Government should identify problems and set policy. The engineers should define the solutions. I am pretty sure that 40 years from now there will be solutions beyond battery-electric vehicles to consider. Why not synthetic fuels that are carbon neutral? Or where will hydrogen fit in? There are so many answers, some not even thought of yet.
“If reducing CO2 is the goal then diesel is a good solution. If it’s improving air quality then perhaps not. But which is it? They’re all mixed up. They are trying to bet on technology that they don’t understand.”
Palmer also suggested that the government’s oft-stated goal of establishing the UK as a leader in battery technology was “non-sensical” given the funding it has put up is significantly less than that of rivals.
“We can’t be a leader with the way we are approaching it currently,” he said. “At Nissan we spent in the region of $4bn establishing the Leaf; in Europe, led primarily by France and Germany, they are putting up 7.5bn euros; in Asia they have been working on this technology 15 years; and in the UK we have pledged £750m. How can we compete with the world with that? The idea that we could lead on lithium-ion battery technology with that level of investment is non-sensical.
“If that is the budget then we should pick a technological winner and put everything behind it rather than try to play catch up without the budget to do it. Personally, I look at some of the work on autonomy coming out of UK universities and see absolute leadership. Why not invest in productionising that?”
Idea of full autonomy in our lifetime “absurd”
In addition, Palmer spoke about the prospect of full autonomy in his lifetime, talking down the idea that the technology would become widespread.
“Unless it is in a geo-fenced area then you are not going to get full autonomy in the way many people are describing it,” he said. “The idea of full autonomy being widespread in my lifetime is absurd. Full Level 5 systems are a moonshot.
“Yes, there will be a typical automotive cycle through stages, from Level 0 upwards – albeit with the mixed section of Level 3 when the car takes control but can hand back to the driver being skipped if commonsense prevails, in my opinion – but the idea of Level 5 in somewhere that isn’t geo-fenced isn’t comprehensible.”
The Government response
Speaking at the same event Alun Cairns MP reiterated the Government’s backing for the automotive sector, saying: “We have committed £1.5bn to R&D in this sector and we will maintain that level of investment and do more if necessary. The Government knows the industry must have the tools to maintain its leadership.”