A day in the spotlight

Although life within the Technology Strategy Board is rarely boring, every now and then, a day comes along that reaches new heights of strangeness, and last Tuesday was such a day. 

It was the day that we were to formally announce the results of our Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstration Programme.  Given that it had evolved from a £10m/100 car trial to a £25m/340car programme, we decided a month or so ago that we ought to make a bit of a fuss about it.  It was, as far as we could see, the largest and most co-ordinated trial of its type in the world, it was geographically dispersed over most of the United Kingdom, and it had most of the major players involved – and a few of the less obvious ones!

Galvanised by this intent, our Communications group swung into action.  We decided to recognise the national nature of the trial with a central London press event and a series of regional off-shoots.  We thought a lot about what we were trying to achieve with the trial.  We wrote and re-wrote our goals until they were incapable of misinterpretation (or so we thought).  We engaged an external media company (Trimedia) to help us and motoring journalist Quentin Wilson came on board to talk about the issue.  The media team kept telling us that we could only plan the actual press event and that additional media stuff would be “very last minute”.  Nevertheless, they trained us hard, making sure we were “on message”, that we could cover for one another and that we all knew the whole programme. 

I discovered the Friday before that I had been “offered up” (I did question the sacrificial overtones of this phrase but was told not to worry) to be interviewed alongside Quentin Wilson on television and radio. Through Monday I received a series of e-mails and phone calls telling me of potential interviews and then cancelling them.  I did manage to do a telephone interview with Alok Jha, the environment correspondent of the Guardian.  By the time I checked into the London hotel the night before I had no more – they had all vanished through the evening – but was told by my media handler to turn up at the Guildhall yard at 7.30am and “help out”. 

The next morning the phone rang at just after 6.00.  “Could you get to the Guildhall as soon as possible, BBC Breakfast want to interview you?”  I managed to get up and across London in 45 minutes, and met Maryam Moshiri who had been drafted in from BBC Business to carry out the interviews at our event.  Since I hadn’t thought about television interviews, let alone “live” ones, I hadn’t had time to worry – and Maryam quickly put me at ease with some practice questions.  It is probably breaching some kind of unwritten code, but she also told me the questions she was going to ask and gave me 10 minutes to think about my answers.  At 7.20, I was called across and did the interview. 

The weird thing about it is that it doesn’t feel odd.  The camera is just out of eyeshot and the interviewer keeps their eyes on you.  It’s a bit like chatting in a bar with a friend.  It was pronounced a moderate success, and I was told I would be needed later.  At this point a young woman from Trimedia popped up at my side and took me to meet the British Satellite News people.  Within a few minutes I was doing another interview.  Then it was a double act with Quentin for London News Tonight (I think, because by then it was all becoming a bit of a blur!) and the main event, the arrival of the Ministers and Iain Gray, our Chief Executive, in three of the electric cars. 

Their formal opening of the event had to be delayed by a couple of minutes whilst Maryam did the teaser that occurs at the top of the hour, but then Lord Adonis, Lord Drayson and Iain all said a few words about the importance of this trial as part of the overall Government aspirations in the area – that we should not only be adopting new technologies to address the societal challenge of climate change, but that this change in personal transport offered UK based business an opportunity to compete in this new “low carbon” economy. 

As a group of journalists went indoors for a detailed briefing by my colleague Andrew Everett, Quentin and I did another double act – this time for BBC World Service.  Then the young woman from Trimedia popped up again, and shepherded me upstairs to join Andrew in an interview with the Environment Correspondent of The Sun.  After this, and without moving seats, we talked to a guy from Autocar.  Once again, the Trimedia shepherdess appeared and I found myself being interviewed by One Planet from the BBC World News.  By now it was 10 o’clock and I needed to be back in Swindon, so I started on my way.  Within 15 minutes of leaving, I got a call that Reuters Television wanted to do an interview, but it was too late to go back.  Then came a guy from the BBC Technology desk who interviewed me over the phone, asking me different questions and, 30 minutes later, James Murray from Business Green caught me on my mobile.  I also managed to do a surreal interview with Ross Solly of ABC Western Australia on their breakfast programme – on what would have been Thursday morning for them!!

Looking back, we got good coverage, we stuck to our messages about what was important and everyone seems pleased with the outcome.  I have suffered the inevitable ribbing from colleagues, friends and family but it hasn’t (yet) gone to my head. 

The one thing that really struck me – admittedly in hindsight – was the range of questions that we hadn’t prepared for.  The guy from the Sun was very interested in how people get to try out these cars – the truth is that the eight consortia are all using different methods to allocate cars and are developing their ideas on this front. 

The BBC were probing as to whether this really is the way forward and wanted a simple yes/no answer to what is a very complex question – we probably have a range of technological options, but they are all capable of a lot of development and we don’t yet know which will be the main option, or whether we will have to get used to a mixed economy of petrol, electric and fuel cell cars. 

The BBC also asked about where the materials for the batteries would come from and whether it would be recycled – to which the answer is that they will have to be, but that until there a sizeable number of cars on the road, the supply of batteries to be recycled will not make it a sensible business proposition.  When there are, someone will find a way to make fairly simple science and engineering work at an acceptable price point. 

Most people wanted to know what these cars are like to drive – to which the simple answer is they are as different from one another as are “normal” cars!

What we are trying to do with this demonstrator programme is to get electric and other low carbon cars out into the real world, see how they perform, how people use them and make sure the learning is applied back into the next generation of cars.  The use of the media to get that message out seemed to go well – every piece of video, audio or text I have seen says the things we hoped it would say. 

Even following the comments pages on the web stories suggests that, although there are the reasonable sceptics out there, there is also a sizeable number of people who want to find out what this is all about, try new things and make their own decisions.  Our Communications team have certainly made their point about the value of media engagement!


Last updated on Thursday 06 August 2009 at 09:40

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  • David Bott|05/08/09 at 9:58 AM

    Adrian The Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform has several components. The competitions are concerned with developing the technology components and systems that will enable the implementation of low carbon vehicles on UK roads This Demonstration programme was designed to test out how those components and systems work in ultra low carbon vehicles - we set the barrier at 50 gms CO2/km, a performance that existing technologies are a long way from delivering. We support the development of technologies that will extend the usability of internal combustion engines under our competitions, but we all felt that there was adequate capacity to test those in existing markets - so we did not need to cover them in our Demonstrator programme. We are not about very "close to market" technologies, where decisions about implementation are commercial rather than technological. I can only restate what I said in my first response - that we worked closely with the NAIGT and that most of the companies in the UK automotive industry are taking part in this Demonstrator programme. As data from the DfT shows, if we were to replace all the cars in the UK with electric ones tomorrow, we would see at least a 40% drop in overall greenhouse gas emission (well to wheel). No-one is sure what technology or mix of technologies will deliver the solution we need to satisfy 2050 requirements, but electric motors, batteries and power management systems will almost certainly play a part. The UK needs to establish a competitive position in these new technologies. That was the goal of this part of our overall programme. That UK industry responded so strongly suggest that it was the right decision. David

    Adrian Hudson|05/08/09 at 9:56 AM


    Thank you for your response, however I think you miss my main point. The basis of my post was that short-term effort and resources should not be concentrated on long-term solutions, which I believe is a similar message conveyed by the NAIGT roadmap.

    Whilst effort should obviously be expended in parallel on long term solutions it is not difficult to imagine that it would have been much more beneficial if the majority of cars put on the road as part of the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstration Programme had been ICE based (i.e. solutions that could actually go into high volume production within 2-3 years). That would certainly have made the World sit up and think about what Test Bed UK was all about and the message it conveyed.

    I am pretty sure that all stakeholders involved in high volume car manufacturing today would agree with me regardless of whether they were involved in this specific programme or not.

    David Bott|05/08/09 at 9:54 AM

    Adrian I am not sure why you think the Demonstrator programme "contravenes" the message of the NAIGT and its roadmap. We have all along worked with the NAIGT - I was a member of the Steering Committee and the Technology Strategy Board was also represented on the Technology sub-committee. They were very supportive of the Demonstrator programme which they see as a first step to Test Bed UK - indeed I think they see our programme as accelerating theirs, and many of the automotive companies involved in the NAIGT submitted proposals to the Demonstrator programme. As I have said in a previous posts, it is important to test the use of the many new technologies that are being developed to address the challenge of providing low carbon personal transport at the system level. All the stakeholder agreed that we could and should get publicity for this programme, not because it was a significant investment by the UK Government, but because that investment was matched by the UK based automotive companies and the scale of the programme indicates the capability and ambition of those companies. David

    Adrian Hudson|05/08/09 at 9:41 AM

    I admire the work of the TSB and, unlike the AAP and EIB (via the ECTF and RSFF frameworkds), it does actually deliver funds to where it is needed, but I can't help thinking the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstration Programme was little more than an elaborate publicity stunt. Fair enough it was good International publicity and I have no doubt that some positives will come out of the research, development and delivery programmes, but surely the whole thing contravenes the message of the NAIGT report and, more specifically, its roadmap.

    I know the latest Integrated Delivery Programme Competition is aligned to NAIGT, but surely it is better to have all boats pointing the same way and all crews rowing in the same direction.

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