The automobile industry relies on mass manufacturing, fast turnover, and a high throughput of components and parts. The current process rewards the continual consumption of finite resources and cannot work in the long run. A small company in Wales has developed a new challenge to the established practice, by combining innovative technology with an alternative business model, to create a mobility service fit for the 21st Century.
Over the last 16 years, UK-based car manufacturer, Riversimple set the goal to create a revolutionary form of mobility with one clear purpose – “to pursue systematically the elimination of environmental impact associated with personal transport”. To achieve their ambition, Riversimple adopt a ‘whole system approach’ encompassing every facet of the business, from technology to the suppliers and stakeholders, and ensure a business model that sees everyone striving for the same result.
Riversimple’s first production car is called the Rasa, from the Latin tabla rasa - a reference to the need for a completely clean slate approach to the provision of mobility. The power source for the Rasa is a 8.5 kW hydrogen fuel cell, equivalent to 11HP, a size more associated with a small outboard engine. The only emissions related to this type of engine are water vapour. The fuel cell directly powers four in-wheel motors, which avoids the need for drive shafts and other material intensive transmissions systems as simple cables transfer power. This reduction in bulkiness leads to flexibility in the way the car can be packaged as well as keeping the weight of the vehicle low.
The braking system is completely electric; friction braking is available but only as a back-up. Electronic braking recovers up to 50% of the power, which is stored in a bank of capacitors. The stored power provides acceleration, which means the fuel cell is only required to maintain the cruising speed. The system cleverly avoids the inherent redundancy in most car engines, where 80% of the engine power is required for accelerating the vehicle, but only accounts for 5-10% of the vehicle’s life.
The combination of a smaller engine, the use of lightweight carbon fibre chassis, braking power recovery and the inherent higher efficiency of fuel cell technology, all contributes to an energy consumption equivalent to 250mpg. Compressed hydrogen fuel allows faster filling than electric vehicles. However, hydrogen infrastructure is not widespread yet, so the car is currently marketed at people living in and around towns, for use on more local journeys.
Riversimple’s guiding philosophy to business is the simple idea of ‘alignment of interests’, so that all stakeholders - the business, customers, suppliers, regulators and the environment can all benefit. The manifestation is a business model in which cars are not sold but offered on a service contract. The service payment comprises a fixed price element and a variable usage rate which covers all operation and fuel costs. At the end of the contract, the car returns to Riversimple for rental to future customers. This way, longevity and low running costs are in every parties interest, and vehicles are designed with high quality and durability as a priority to be kept on the road for as long as possible.
“It’s much easier to design a new model to suit the 21st Century, than to tweak a model that was designed to do something fundamentally different”
The company applies its ‘alignment of interests’ philosophy in a similar way to the relationship with its suppliers. For example, it does not buy fuel cells for its cars, rather it pays for installed kilowatt-hours (energy usage). In this way, it is in the interest of the fuel cell company to provide equipment in the most reliable way, using high quality, long-lasting materials for reuse after Riversimple no longer requires them.
Riversimple embraces many of the key characteristics of the circular economy. The elegant design is based on the effective use of resources and the elimination of harmful emissions. The performance model is founded on products, material and components being kept at their highest value for as long as possible, while at the same time providing a great service to the customer. This approach safeguards future resources and creates the potential for increased revenue for Riversimple and its suppliers. Another way of expressing ‘alignment of interests’ is ‘optimisation of the system as a whole’ - a defining characteristic of natural systems that the circular economy strives to emulate.
More fundamentally, Riversimple has recognised that the whole current model is predicated on a set of (early 20th C) conditions that have now evolved. So to create a mobility system that suits the very different circumstances of the modern world requires much more than tweaking the old model, rather it needs a complete change of the system.
The Rasa is set to be commercially available by 2019 and Riversimple is planning to make the technology open source to enable fast adoption in different markets.