You would need to be very much in denial not to notice that EVs have been taking the automotive market by storm in the last couple of years. Sales grow every month, and the tipping point is fast approaching when all-electric becomes the dominant vehicle type. Electrified vehicles of all types, including hybrids, already have passed 50% of the market in the UK. But most people agree that some of the joy of driving has been lost on the way. McLaren Applied wants to put the fun back, in what it is calling the “fourth wave” of EVs.
McLaren Applied used to be the technology wing of McLaren, the “third leg of a stool” as company Chairman Nick Fry describes it. The first leg was the Formula One racing team, and the second the premium performance road cars. “We realized we were developing a lot of technology that could be sold to the outside world,” he says. “McLaren Applied was ahead of the curve and then this company got into a whole bunch of different things. The core of it was electronics, but because there was demand, the company grew very rapidly to over 700 people and was into medical equipment and skateboards and bicycles and all sorts of things.”
When McLaren decided to concentrate on its Formula One team, McLaren Applied was sold to Greybull Capital. The company’s focus is still on motorsport technology, but it now has two other areas that spin off from this. One is data communications, including telemetry, which is a key skill from motor racing that McLaren Applied is now leveraging for trains, buses, and mining vehicles. The other is mainstream vehicles, which is an area where McLaren Applied believes it can help drive the next stage in electrification.
“We tell the story of electric vehicles coming in waves,” says Stephen Lambert, Head of Electrification at McLaren. “The first wave was when Elon Musk put some batteries in the back if a Lotus Elise and the Tesla Roadster was born, around 15 years ago. BMW joined the market to drive acceptance. We’re now in the middle of the second wave of electrification, which is mass adoption. All OEMs are building electric vehicles driven by a combination of consumer demand and legislation.”
“We’re starting to see the third wave of electrification, which is about powertrain efficiency,” continues Lambert. The Mercedes EQXX concept is the most high-profile example of this trend, delivering 750 miles of range from a 100kWh battery. “It’s got great aerodynamics, it’s got solar panels on the roof and skinny tires, but its biggest innovation is powertrain efficiency. The third wave is not about having bigger, heavier batteries. It’s the opposite. It’s about having a smaller battery but a more efficient drive train.”
This is the area McLaren Applied is currently focusing on with its latest inverter technology, the IPG5. The EV inverter might seem like a rather generic component in electrified vehicles, but McLaren’s work in this area has been integral to the electrification of motorsport. Its technology has alternated between McLaren supercars to racing and back to the road for a decade. It has been used in Formula E, Formula One, and Extreme E. McLaren Applied has also supplied the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) to Formula One cars since 2008, and supplies ECUs to the NASCAR Spring Cup and IndyCar Series. McLaren is even doing telemetry for the E1 electric powerboat racing series.
The most recent version of its inverter, IPG5 (industrial platform generation five), integrates the latest 800V technology, with the ability to drive motors at 400kW peak or 250kW continuous. It makes use of silicon carbide to provide higher current density, reduce switching losses, and support higher switching frequencies. McLaren Applied is also working with Elaphe to create a package of the IPG5 with in-wheel motors. These developments finely tune what the inverter contributes to the drivetrain.
“You’ve got a battery and you’ve got a motor,” says Lambert “But neither of them can do anything without the inverter. The inverter is the hidden hero of the drivetrain. The inverter defines how efficient the EV is, and how it feels to drive. Everything is to some extent an input or an output of our system. The inverter really is the heart of that driver experience. It controls how much current is pulling from the battery and then how that is distributed. All the functional safety, all the integration, all the communication, everything revolves around the inverter.”
“The benefits of 800-volt and silicon carbide technology is not just about the efficiency of the system,” adds Nick Fry, Chairman, McLaren Applied. “It’s also the fine motor control.” This is an area that can differentiate EVs from each other. “Porsche electric vehicles drive better than most of the others because of the control over the motor. A Tesla is a perfectly good vehicle, but it’s not renowned for being a driver’s car. There will be different solutions for different elements of the marketplace. We believe IPG5 is the most power dense unit on the market.”
This central role of the inverter and the character it brings make it central to the next phase of EV development. “We’re starting to look ahead to what the fourth wave of electrification might be,” says Lambert. “You read a lot about electric vehicles being quite one dimensional. They accelerate very quickly. It’s kind of all they do really. There was an article two or three months ago where they took 11 EVs and see if they were fun to drive. The Tesla Model 3 was bang in the middle of the 11. It went very well, but as soon as you start to drive it and push it, it wasn’t so impressive. The winner of the group test, you won’t be surprised to learn, was the Porsche. The BMW i4 came second. The big surprise was the Kia EV6 came third.”
“The fourth wave of electrification will be driver involvement,” says Lambert. “There’s going to be a shift in what people think about vehicles. What makes an aspirational car is not necessarily that it accelerates quickly. With IPG5, our inverter is delivering very fine motor control, which means that you can start to engineer character back into an electric vehicle. It can have driving modes that you can switch on and off within software. That’s going to be part of the next wave of electric vehicles. Our technology is aimed at high-end performance vehicles – Mercedes AMG, BMW and above. It gives them an angle to differentiate their products in the marketplace.”
“The beauty of motorsport is things get developed very quickly,” concludes Fry. “IPG5 is 100% focused on mainstream automotive. At the moments we are selling is into the supercar and hypercar business. We are aiming to have our sixth-generation version completed with full automotive specification for automotive certification for early 2025. This is not something that is likely to find its way into a Mercedes A-class. With the cost reductions that we’re working on now, we might be suitable for a £60,000 vehicle. But a Ford Fiesta or a A-class Mercedes does not need an 800-volt silicon carbide, 99% efficiency, very high-power handling capability. It’s really a case of trying to migrate some of the very high-tech stuff that we do in motorsport into other fields.”