Tim Unerman - Uniti's Composites Guru

Holly Suttle

24 Nov 2017

Part 2 of a 3 post series highlighting how Uniti are moving from concept to the roads in 4 years. At the time of writing, Uniti are hurtling towards opening their production facility in Landskrona (late October 2017) their first annual product launch (7 Dec 2017).

Tim Unerman in conference

Tim Unerman has worked with Uniti since December 2016. He was recruited to assist with the development of the composite materials for the electric car and has quickly established himself as a key member of the engineering team. Tim discusses his role as Composite Material Specialist at Uniti and how the autonomous vehicle will work whilst focusing on being the most highly sustainable car on the roads by 2019.

Why is clean, sustainable energy important to you?
I think ultimately we have got to have a change in lifestyle, and make things last better.

Already you can see now how what we are doing effects everybody. We use energy to live off, therefore just using more coal for example won’t help that. It effects us immediately, it’s not like in 100 years time it’s going to effect us, it’s effecting us now, in a bad way. I just think it will continue like that unless we have a change. I don’t think the change is that difficult, it’s just an ambition, it’s not an impossibility.

As a composite material specialist, did you have a lot of input in choosing the materials of Uniti? Yeah, I think it’s a case of I was brought onboard to deliver the choices they have kind of made very roughly. If you start working with metallics, that’s all you can ever do, because the change to a composite material is so expensive when you go into production. it’s so high risk, you never do it. Whereas if you get the composite materials, if something new comes out, it’s just a change in your process, or change in something that you’re used to.

If you’re making lots of vehicles like 50,000 units a year, you’d still say, “okay, in six months time we are changing over to this more sustainable product”. And you can do that, and I think that’s part of the logic of it, and I’ve come on board to help improve that. My background is around how to do things in volume, which is very complicated and very different to lots of composite specialists out there.

Did you have much input into what the interior design will be like? I suppose in terms of what will end up as the fabrics, I will do. Most cars now actually have quite a lot of natural fibre products in them. Within lots of cars already, the structural bit of the interior is actually made from a natural fibre product. Particularly the BMWs, and the Volvos. They have to have a certain percentage recycled already, so that’s obviously where they get an easy game from it. They use bare minimum, but we aim to use as much recycled materials as possible.

Has it been difficult to find materials that are completely biodegradable and recyclable?
I think it’s very ongoing, we are still very early days in terms of actual material selection, and there’s still a lot of development work to go. If you’re not trying to make a performance product, it makes life a lot easier. If you look at a lot of what is going on, most companies are looking at cars making very fast, but cars don’t have to be fast, they have to be light and effective. So you kind of can get away with a lot more lack of material performance, but higher sustainability.

Do you think this is going to be the beginning of smart cities, and a fresh start for urban areas?
I don’t know, I think it depends on what the driver wants and from the government point of view. Everyone is saying the right kind of things, but it’s the case of people need to make that decision. This vehicle has got much closer to a much smarter city. it’s that steppingstone between a normal car and a smart city car. People are bringing our very concept-y cars, where people have to change their lifestyles so much [to fit the car]. I don’t think people are ready for it yet, whereas we are kind of bridging that gap.

Some people have their reservations about autonomous vehicles
Some of Lewis’s logic is why not just have set driving places for autonomous vehicles? One of the things he suggested was wouldn’t it be great if you had autonomous vehicles [in the incident of a crash]. If you are about to have an accident, who should you save? The passengers, or the vehicle, or what you are about to crash into. What should it prioritise? that’s quite a difficult ethical question to answer, isn’t it. it’s also quite a harsh decision to make. So Lewis’s logic was, why don’t we store these vehicles some where else, and have specific driving areas so that the vehicle gets to wherever you want it to. So if I want a vehicle outside my house in three minutes, it turns up. But if there’s nobody in the vehicle, which is when you’re using autonomous driving, it’s simple. It prioritises the people outside the vehicle. [The autonomous vehicle] is basically like, “I’m going to crash into a million pieces, how can I do this to avoid everything else around me?” And then the maths, and the science, the engineering and everything becomes a lot more straightforward. So I think it’s a lot about stepping stones towards these things, not necessarily going completely autonomous tomorrow, because I don’t think people would buy that yet.

People are quite afraid of the unknown but some people, especially a lot of younger people, are quite looking forward to having smarter cities, although older generations to have some more questions about autonomous vehicles.

The infrastructure has got to catch up with it too. it’s also do we have good enough data for vehicles to drive around vehicles autonomously? Is there enough mapping of the roads? What happens if there are changes, what happens if there’s a pothole, what happens if everything. There is so much unknown if you like, so I just think smart cities need to develop generally. it’s an added feature, you don’t have to use it, it doesn’t have to be enabled.

What drew you to join Uniti?
I was working in Bristol, I’m originally from London, and I just kind of wanted a change. I travelled quite a lot for work, so was happily around Europe. As an engineer, I always like to find an industry that is growing, because that’s where the interesting projects come from, that’s where the money is coming from. So it didn’t take much researching to work out that electric vehicles is a good place to start to work in.