Hugo Spowers – the new face of the car industry?

As the need to find alternative, cleaner and more sustainable sources to power the cars on our roads becomes an imperative, one pioneering company is going back to the drawing board and redesigning the car around the fuel cell rather than the other way around. Peter McManners finds out more from Riversimple founding director Hugo Spowers

Hugo Spowers is the founding director of Riversimple, a company with sustainability at its core. In his office, in an old mill overlooking the River Teme, there is a table consisting of a sheet of glass mounted on a Merlin engine crankcase. This is appropriate furniture for a company continuing the tradition of mould-breaking British engineering.

The car being developed by Riversimple is made from carbon fibre composites and powered by hydrogen fuel cells. This is every bit as much a game changer for the car industry as the Merlin engine was to the course of the Second World War.

Whilst the rest of the car industry is betting on electric cars in the near term and funnelling huge amounts of capital into improving fuel cell technology for the longer term, Spowers insists that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are viable, and needed, now.

This is no flight of fancy or wild idea; this has come from a deep analysis of how to build and operate cars to suit the characteristics of fuel cells – as opposed to squeezing fuel cells into cars designed around combustion engines, which requires much higher performance than fuel cells are currently able to give.

There is an interesting personal story behind this unique company. Since he was a boy, Spowers has been interested in ecosystems and the natural world, but in his early career the attraction of fast cars, and the engineering required to make them, were a stronger draw on a young man. He graduated in Engineering from Oxford and entered the world of motor sport, but he found that “the rules governing motor racing developed to prevent any real innovation”.

He decided to leave motor racing not knowing what to do, “except it would be nothing to do with cars.” However he went on to study for an MBA where he was drawn into looking at a commercial feasibility study of bringing composite-bodied fuel-cell cars to market. “I already knew that the barriers were not technical; it’s people, politics and inertia.”

Spowers now had the opportunity to use his expertise in race car technology to apply to sustainability, which he describes as “the defining issue of our time” and a “very exciting era”. He has thought carefully about the evolution of the car as sustainability starts to drive policy, and concluded that there is a bright future for hydrogen, using fuel cells to generate the electricity.

He assumed at first that you cannot implement this approach without the support of the car industry, “but you can’t do it with them; because it would be commercial suicide for them.” This is a major technology disruption which will be very hard for the incumbent large car companies.
Spowers realised that the problem is one of system integration, a skill at which motor racing teams excel; paradoxically, such step changes require much smaller teams and budgets than optimising mature technologies. “It is easier to drive this step change from outside the industry than from inside,” he says.

The technology of Riversimple may change the industry, but it is the other aspects of the company that make it a really interesting player in sustainability. The business model has sustainability at its core to such an extent that instead of optimising the company in isolation, they have rewritten the way the industry operates. Instead of making cars and selling them into the market, Riversimple will sell mobility, retaining ownership of the cars.

Those familiar with cradle-to-cradle sustainable manufacturing will understand the logic that ultimate sustainability is not simply through design for recycling, but through selling the service not the product. Here is a company that has put the theory into business strategy.The business plan may be bold, but it is the company’s corporate governance that is really interesting.

Spowers explains that he looked into employee ownership but, “I thought this is a step in the right direction but still not representative of society’s interests and there is no satisfactory way to bring in capital. That was the point when I decided that we had to develop a multiple stakeholder partnership and decouple equity and control.”

The governance system is designed to balance and protect the benefit streams of a number of stakeholders represented by the partners, only one of which is the investors, and they have no primacy over the other stakeholder groups. Profits will still go to the shareholders but the control of the company is in the hands of the partners.

But what do his investors think of having their control diluted in this way? “You have to have the right investors, but not altruistic investors; we have developed this model with our early investors, and for them it is one of the key reasons they have invested. They have to appreciate the advantages of a different model, designed to make more money by pursuing the interests of society, and thus earning the goodwill of all those on whom the success of the company depends, than by subordinating those interests to those of shareholders.”

Another important question, will customers want your offering? “I know that people don’t feel they have the luxury to think too much about the greater good. Our approach is that we want to offer people something that appeals more and better meets their needs than the standard thing. It is important to us that people do not take the car from environmental guilt but because they want it. If it all gets evangelically green and worthy, you’ve had it.

“You have to be more successful on the metrics by which success is conventionally judged. If you are more successful, then people will copy you, which is good for us as it builds support for our standards in all their forms. If you are not, you are only ever going to be a niche curiosity which gets the support of the activist green movement. If you can generate economic activity which is more profitable by doing good then you can expect other people to come on board for reasons other than altruism or interest in sustainability.”

So is there a need for forward thinkers to break down the barriers? “You need to think pretty laterally to come up with these solutions, because none of them work very well in isolation; the key is the system-level integration. You are more likely to do this if you are interested in sustainability, but simple logic dictates that sustainability is rather important anyway; you don’t have to be an eco-activist.”

So what is the future? “I imagine a world with a much larger number of regionally-specific vehicle manufacturers. We won’t be the next Ford or Toyota, although I would like to think we will be the Hoover in the marketplace, in that we are the ones that started this model of fuel-cell technology; but we are not a fuel cell car company, we are a sustainable car company.”

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