Fleet Auto News Caroline Falls talks with Dickson Leow, general manager at Innovative Mechatronics, or the IM Group, about future mobility and sustainability. Before joining IM Group, Dickson was leader of technology and mobility future at the Australian Road Research Board. He has 25 years experience in the automotive world, including in vehicle engineering, safety, and regulation. He was ambassador for Toyota Australia in fuel cell vehicle technology. Dickson also was an Australian committee expert, drafting international standards for future transport mobility.
This is an edited transcript of the recording of FAN’s first podcast for 2022. For the full interview you can listen to the podcast linked here. We would like to thank our new sponsor SOFICO SERVICES for the support and for making this podcast possible.
Dickson: No, I am no longer on the ISO TC204 Committee, which was drafting CAV standards, as I have moved on from my previous role at ARRB. But many great works by the committee members of TC204 WG14, such as the ISO22737 Level 4 standards for low speed automated driving and many others about to be published. My current focus is about EV and hybrid battery power solutions. Enabling a sustainable circular economy – spent and used EV batteries are remanufactured and saved from landfill.
Caroline: I know you are interested in what’s going on in Singapore and its roll out of an autonomous vehicle plan for the city state. Can you tell us what lessons Singapore is bringing about?
Dickson: Yes Caroline, as you may be aware, Singapore has a master plan 2040 which they shared about the long-term vision of the transportation system and the integrated cities approach where each level has a specific functional network within the ecosystem – this is also somewhat similar to the South Korea plan with their clean-energy based smart city in Jeju Island. The learnings from Singapore or South Korea could be extrapolated to cater for other regions and leap-frog some barriers. One of the lessons is bringing the people along the journey and hear what they think. This human-centricity reminded me of the time I was with Toyota back in early 2000s where they had a holistic ecosystem for intelligent transport systems and how each segment plays a role in human-centricity of comfort, convenience, safety, and ecology -– how each technology and data are interelated and interconnected to form the smart mobility society. This is the key point, a smarter mobility for the people, including how energy is used and harnessed and getting back to my focus on sustainable circular economy.
Caroline: Let’s talk about autonomous cars. Realistically how far into the future are they? I’ve heard at least another decade. Is that your view?
Dickson: Automation is here already, and legislation hopefully is around the corner. Just a few weeks ago, a German authority approved certification of L3 automation – where the vehicle can change lane by itself without driver input, but of course being a L3, the driver can monitor the situation, be in control if necessary. And as mentioned earlier, L4 automated driving (low speed) is already with us, in the UK, Milton Keys, shuttles have been operating. Even here in Australia ADVI and ARRB have been involved in many demonstration and pilot trials of automated vehicles such as shuttles at Latrobe Uni, Olympic Park in Sydney or Adelaide Oval Convention Centre in SA, although low speed. So realistically, the future is here from a technology viewpoint, but to commercialise and operate it could take a while yet as we draft legislation, regulations and licenses. The scope of operating environment and the interaction with people also needs careful consideration like we do with trams and people or cars and pedestrians. Another consideration is the energy to power these vehicles as many will no doubt be electrified and draw from the grid. So, the sustainable circular economy becomes apparent and important.
Caroline: You were co-author of a paper late last year on the so-called circular economy. This grabbed my attention as I was at that time studying a three-month course on the circular economy. Let’s talk about that. First, I’ll let you explain in a nutshell what the circular economy is.
Dickson: A circular economy in a nutshell is about utilising and reusing what is already in the ecosystem, to not only recoup and minimise waste but to create value from the material. But a sustainable circular economy is more than just reusing the material or minerals going round and round, it is about putting in place opportunities and holistic approaches with support from multiple stakeholders and the supply chain to map out a journey to mitigate issues and challenge the process of recycling, remanufacturing and repurposing of used and spent components. This is the DNA of IM Group, where we based our operations on the 3Rs – remanufacture, recycle and reduce.
Therefore, in context of the EV and hybrid batteries, in creating a sustainable circular economy for battery electric vehicle (BEV) and hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) battery remanufacturing, an Australian brand, Injectronics is addressing an area of concern surrounding BEV and HEV life cycles. The sustainable economy allows for batteries to be reassessed and repacked and balanced into full modules and packs from the active cells or from vehicles which can no longer be used for their intended purposes (propel the vehicle) to be used in static energy storage or other applications. After multiple cycles, where the cells of the batteries are considered dead, they will be treated as part of their end-of-life process and minerals and materials are recirculated back into the production of components such as drive batteries (again). In this process, lithium and cobalt mining are reduced significantly.
By reusing retired HEV and BEV batteries for production of ESS (environmental storage solutions) we reduce the raw materials. The potential benefit includes offsetting initial manufacturing impacts by extending battery life span. The benefits are magnified when reused in a second use such as stationary energy storage. In addition, healthy packs, cells and parts such as cases, sensors and relays are repurposed for second use applications like industrial ESS.
Caroline: My definition of the circular economy is it’s a recognition that the earth cannot forever deliver to us natural resources, nor can it forever regenerate. The circular economy depends on relies on designing products and systems that account for and reuse or recycle all the elements and materials used. Now as you said your paper focuses on EV and hybrid battery technology and how it fits into the circular economy. Essentially how do they fit into the circular economy?
Dickson: The concept is about what we can do to ensure sustainable approach of spent EV and hybrid batteries. As you may not know, once an EV hybrid battery is no longer operational many are thrown away, hopefully not at the rubbish tip but by proper end of life disposal. However, these battery cells still have 80 percent or so of energy capacity, so we could harness these cells for other applications or remanufacture an optimal battery. Let’s look at this closely. With hybrid sales in 2019 of a little over 31,000 units and the long standing of hybrids from Toyota and other brands (like Honda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai) over the past two decades, there are tens of thousands of drive-batteries that are out of warranty and potentially replaceable, we are talking maybe a few thousand units per year. These hybrid batteries could potentially end up in landfill. So, the hybrid battery program is a remanufacturing program in collaboration with government, where Injectronics will forward the customer a high quality remanufactured battery that has undergone extensive evaluation and assessment of the cells, modules and components. They are ready to use, a “plug and play” with all the fitting components ready for install. The failure stems usually from an error in the BMS, or battery management system, which monitors all the modules and when it detects a failing module, it registers a fault code. Usually, it means the whole battery pack will be replaced with a new one from the manufacturer. At Injectronics, the hybrid battery packs are assessed and graded, the pack may not be operational, but the modules or even sub-level cells individually may be okay. What Injectronics do is that we remanufacture battery packs from ground up, meaning, each cell is tested and verified and combined and paired into modules and each module is tested and verified and then placed into the pack and retested, verified and balanced. All components are then assessed and manufactured to complete the hybrid battery pack. The pack is then tested and undergoes a series of tests to pass quality processes and checks.
The other program in collaboration with Sustainability Victoria is more specifically looking into EV batteries is to reuse the spent battery for other application – the EV batteries not suitable for vehicle could power facilities and potentially save tons of CO2 per year a 2nd life cycle so to speak, a typical 120kWh unit could potentially save 42tonsCO2e for a typical dealership showroom. The EV batteries if found to no longer have any capable capacity, will then be broken down into its elements of plastics, chemicals and metals for proper EOL treatment by a certified recycler, thus enabling those raw material to be used as stock for the creation of EV batteries or other application.
Caroline: That’s good news to hear someone in Australia — you at Injectronics — is gathering up end-of-life vehicle batteries and reusing them. Our Fleet Auto News audience then is an important one for you I guess. How can fleet managers, and fleet maintenance managers, help you. What do you want them to do? Do they need to develop a policy for batteries?
Dickson: Yes, it is great to be able to share with the fleet industry this environmentally sustainable opportunity. It is a discussion we are having with many OEMs and the automotive industry about how they could assist and it is the same I believe for fleet operations. There is a simple process where you can call us and Injectronics can swap the hybrid batteries (currently Toyota Camry 40 and 50SER, Prius Gen2, with more models being added) or go online to hybrid.injectronics.com.au and a workshop can fit the Injectronics hybrid battery. For the EV battery in collaboration with Sustainability Victoria, there is also a process where we can work with the fleet operations or company as a program to collect the batteries and reuse them for other applications like energy storage systems, I am happy for them to give me a call or email me at email@example.com.
Caroline: Can you tell us what’s been happening to end-of-life vehicle batteries to date in Australia, and what can happen, what you want to see happen to them?
Dickson: Sure, currently many of the dead batteries, many still with vast amounts of energy capacity are being thrown out and I suspect some may have found their way to landfill as people may not know what to do with them. OEMs are offering cashback for these dead batteries as a way for them to be recycled by EOL recyclers, where they are broken down into elements as mentioned before. However, there is potentially a large amount of wasted energy and from many sources, Australian recyclers are not really ready for the EV batteries as their equipment and process are a few years away, so this process and program from IM Group would assist in the transition while enabling a sustainable circular economy and an environmentally sound approach. As stated in my paper, if no actions were taken to facilitate a sustainable circular economy, it would not only be unfortunate from an economic perspective, but it is also an environmental disaster. Because the last thing we want is for any of these lithium batteries to be in landfill.
Caroline: I know battery technology is advancing rapidly. What sort of drive life does a vehicle battery have? How many kilometres, or recharges, or years can one expect from a vehicle battery manufactured in 2021? What I’m digging for here, is will fleet managers realistically be stewards for battery reuse, given that vehicles are generally rolled out of fleets after three to four years?
Dickson: New vehicles with EV or hybrid batteries generally have their warranty covered by the OEM during their first three to eight years of warranty. So generally fleet managers of new vehicles do not have concerns, but awareness is important. If we were to purchase these new vehicles post their warranty periods, there is now an alternative which is environmentally sustainable and more importantly they can address the sustainable circular economy where OEMs have a sustainable program for treatment of EV/hybrid batteries not just at point of sale. We are all responsible for our environment are we not?
Caroline: You moved last year to Innovative Mechatronics Group from ARRB. Indeed your circular economy paper was prepared with collaboration from ARRB. Meanwhile, can you tell us about IM and your role there? Is it a newly created role?
Dickson: IM Group is an automotive supplier servicing OEMs and aftermarkets with brands such as Injectronics, MAP, GOSS, and OEM Genuine Parts. IM Group was established in 1983 and recently was purchased by GUD, which owns a group of companies in Australia, New Zealand and the US predominantly in the automotive and water industries. You may have heard of DBA brakes, RYCO Filters, Vision X lighting, Brown & Watson.They are all part of GUD. My role, well it is a newly created role in the company. I am the general manager at IM Group and I am to develop and expand the business in EV and hybrid power solutions as well as bring awareness in future mobility (EV, CAV, ITS, hydrogen) and how it may impact the automotive industry
Caroline: We’re recording this podcast as the Omicron variant of Covid19 sweeps through Australia, and indeed the world, disrupting supply chains and overwhelming systems, particularly the healthcare system. Is this focus on dealing with the pandemic stalling developments in things like the circular economy or autonomous vehicles, or is it providing opportunities — maybe a bit of both? I’m interested in what you think.
Dickson: To be honest Caroline, the pandemic has assisted in highlighting areas of interest or concerns depending how you view it, but importantly it’s helped identify where we can improve, from internal processes to supply-chain ecosystems and the multi-faceted stakeholders of the automotive industry, but more importantly the circular economy, including how people interact and the strain of transportation we take for granted.
Caroline: Thanks for your insights Dickson. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
Dickson: Thanks Caroline, it was great to talk to you and your audience today.
— Caroline Falls has been a correspondent for Fleet Auto News since 2015. She is a freelancer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org