“We did all sorts of things that were verging on criminal,” Alexander Schey tells T&FME as he recalls Racing Green Endurance’s (RGE) monumental trek from Alaska to Argentina in a 400hp, 160mph electric sports car he had put together with his fellow Imperial College London students.
In some ways this was the quintessential pet project that got out of hand. Schey entered his mechanical engineering studies with no particular passion for car design but was forming an interest in electrification technology fuelled by the projects he was seeing on campus and in the university’s labs. By the time they set off for South America they had raised a million dollars in sponsorship; and 26,000 km later Schey and his peers were well on their way to the cutting edge of the automotive industry.
“I was getting the bug from just being around these projects,” he affirms. “But we were disappointed that when you went out into the real world, no-one really cared or was interested in electric vehicles at the time. So, we wanted to do something to change that perception and built that car from scratch.”
“I think somebody last summer did Argentina to Alaska on electric power, but we were the first,” he pauses to joke: “We are still the first to do it from North to South!”
In terms of where electric vehicles were at the time, Schey and the rest of the Racing Green Endurance (RGE) electric sports car team were – relatively speaking – attempting to use a technology that had barely pushed itself out of the primordial soup. While there may have been Prii (it took Toyota until 2011 to give its hybrid a plural) on the road since the late 1990s, the perception that an electric vehicle was a slow and expensive novelty was proving hard to shake off.
In 2010, the world was largely devoid of Teslas and supermarket fast-chargers. Keeping their ‘SRZero’ electric sports car on the road proved to be one of their biggest challenges.
“To be frank, there was no charging infrastructure,” Schey says as he recalls his time as RGE’s project manager. “We were jimmying any electricity supply we could. Our favourite trick in North America was to rock up at a Holiday Inn, or a motel like that, and while some of us would check in, some of us would go out the back and get into the laundry room – which had the only high-powered socket they had – pull out the dryer from the wall and sneak a cable out to the car through the window.”
Schey and team’s extraordinary world record-making journey was followed by a curious media along the route, as well as filmed by legendary Swiss lensman Claudio von Planta who helped diarise the 136-day trek for the BBC. He also compiled the footage for the documentary film Racing Green. As credentials for placing yourself at the forefront of a push towards electrification go taking on the Pan-American highway in an electric sports car wasn’t a bad way to introduce himself to the automotive industry, but Schey says that he wasn’t yet ready to step onto the corporate ladder. RGE was then morphed into Vantage Power, a start-up designed to test and develop emerging electric vehicles technology. At the beginning, the new firm was very much on the outside of the automotive industry.
“Maybe we would look back and think we were naive at the time. But we didn’t really want to get a job,” he reflects on the creation of Vantage Power with fellow student Toby Schulz. “We were so excited about the technology, we thought we could do it ourselves in a business.”
Between 2011 and 2019, Vantage Power set about developing a series of highly innovative electrification and connectivity technologies, many of which are regarded as world firsts, including in 2017, the first fleet of retrofitted hybrid buses going into service on the streets of London. The growing team also created its own 25t triple-axle hybrid bus. In VPVision, it developed one of the first and best telemetry data collectors in the industry for powertrains and battery data while leaning on AI and cloud technology.
When T&FME asks whether there was any doubt in his mind that he had made the right choice to pursue his ambition of making electrification more mainstream in the automotive industry, rather than taking on a role at a large OEM, Schey’s answer is forthright and blunt.
“No. I never felt that,” he says, before adding: “It had become apparent that where we thought the industry should be was many years away. Maybe ten years from where it actually was.
“We were very firmly of the belief that it would happen. Quite early on, in that journey, you started seeing the tell-tale signs that we (as an industry) were not going back. Dieselgate in 2015, really had a big impact. Tesla’s meteoric rise over that period really was indicating on a global scale that people wanted the technology. There was never any doubt in our minds that we would end up where the industry is today and where it’s heading.”
Unsurprisingly, its pioneering work didn’t go unnoticed among the majors OEMs in the automotive industry and in 2019 it was acquired by US powertrain powerhouse Allison Transmission. He says the move was prompted when another company had expressed an interest in investing in the firm and soon there were almost half-a-dozen other suitors for the company.
“This was something that was always on our radar but a long way out. We ended up with a shortlist of five we were going down the process with, but Allison accelerated faster through that than others.”
Schey now combines his role as Allison’s chief commercial officer as well as directing Vantage Power’s development.
“Most of Vantage Power got rolled up into the engineering organisation and is working on a number of innovative technologies in battery packs, telemetry control systems, integration and that’s feeding most of our R&D activity,” he explains. “I trained as an engineer, but can no longer call myself one as I’ve been doing the commercial side for too long! I was brought into the sales and marketing organisation to head up all of our electrification efforts globally with all our customers. I work primarily with our global team and the team over in Indianapolis and in the US to essentially commercialise not just what’s going on in Vantage Power but also the other investments Allison has made concurrently, particularly around our propulsion solutions.”
Much of his role now involves coordinating Allison’s development and production with its long list of global OEM partners.
The move from small to large organisation and from disrupter to industry insider was understandably a challenge he has had to embrace.
“It was a huge adjustment, not least because I had never had a boss before!” He says. “When you join a large organisation your role actually shrinks because there are specialists in areas you may have been juggling before. Equally, your decisions are much larger in magnitude and you need to involve many more people in the process. Learning that was a steep curve.”
He says that the move has also help him appreciate the strength of linking with a company with over 100 years of knowledge to fall back on.
“The thing that struck me coming from a start-up background when I first walked around Allison was the institutional knowledge of knowing how to make a product survive; how you service it; how it comes apart in the field…With the greatest of respect to many of the early stage companies, and I was one of them: no matter how much money you have, it takes a lot of time and experience to build up that capability.”
Read the full interview in the April issue of Truck & Fleet Middle East.