Ireland’s west coast in the driving seat when it comes to autotech

24 Oct 2019789 Views

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35 years after car production officially ceased in Ireland, the world’s autotech innovators are breathing new life back into the industry on the country’s west coast.

For many of the computer scientists, engineers and designers who have recently finished their undergraduate degrees, Ireland’s history of car manufacturing is something they never lived through.

In 1982, the vehicle that was supposedly the dream car of the future, the iconic DeLorean, ceased production with the closure of its factory in Belfast. While down in Cork, the closure of the Ford plant in 1984 brought to an end Ireland’s association with large-scale car production.

However, fast forward a couple of decades later and Ireland is starting to re-emerge as a player not in the steel and rubber of mass car production, but in the wires and software built into them. This is evident nowhere more so than along Ireland’s west coast, where a string of different academic and industry players have sprung up in recent years, with major multinationals also attracted there for what it has to offer.

One of the biggest companies to make a splash in the outskirts of Limerick was Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), which in 2017 announced the opening of a technology development centre in Shannon with just 12 employees.

While much of its focus is on developing the technology for electric vehicles (EVs), the site has expanded in size and numbers to also develop Level 4 autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, one level away from completely autonomous driving.

Infographic of connected and autonomous vehicle companies.

Infographic of connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) players in Ireland. Image: IDA

From big names to start-ups

The JLR hub recently made headlines for offering its customers cryptocurrency in exchange for their cars’ data to train its systems about everyday driving obstacles such as congestion or potholes. The decision to make the Shannon site the first in the world to test such a system seems telling of the west coast’s role in future autotech.

JLR’s general manager for vehicle engineering in Shannon, John Cormican, spoke to Siliconrepublic.com ahead of his appearance at Inspirefest 2018, explaining what drew JLR to the region. He said that its location is conveniently sandwiched between universities and institutes such as the University of Limerick, NUI Galway and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

“That cluster between Cork, Limerick and Galway is producing many, many thousands of graduates, and that’s primarily the reason why Jaguar Land Rover moved to Shannon because we can access that talent pool, and there are some great courses there that we are hiring from,” he said.

Another familiar name in the Limerick area is General Motors (GM), which first set up a logistics and tech support division in the region back in 2013. Fast forward a couple of years later to 2017 and the company announced plans to double its workforce to 200 at the site.

However, while GM might be keeping its head down in Ireland at the moment, one other major autotech player is certainly making headlines for its part in boosting the west coast’s autotech achievements.

A leading European centre

French player Valeo has greatly expanded its capabilities in Galway after it announced earlier this year its plans to pump €44m into its Tuam R&D centre to develop technologies in AI and deep learning for AVs.

The site is considered of such importance that the president of Valeo’s comfort and driving assistance systems business group, Marc Vrecko, described the Tuam site as “one of the leading research centres in the group”. It also previously partnered with NUI Galway researchers from the Science Foundation Ireland software research centre, Lero.

Turning briefly away from EVs and AVs, one of the west coast’s most successful start-ups in the sector is Aptarus. Co-founded in 2014 by Karl Lusted and Martin Farrell, it provides a training platform for drivers on the go through devices such as tablets and phones.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Lusted said much of the reason why Galway in particular has emerged as a hotbed of autotech activity is down to the presence of Thermo King, a major leader in transport refrigeration. One of his previous companies, Blue Tree Systems – along with Connaught Electronics Limited and Celtrak – have either strong relationships with or have been acquired by Thermo King.

Aerial shot of Geec car on a race track.

The Irish Geec vehicle taking part in the Shell Eco-marathon Europe 2018. Image: Mark Pain/Shell

Established research

But while start-ups and MNCs are having a major impact on the west coast’s autotech scene, so too is the world of academia. As I recently touched on in another piece, IT Sligo announced earlier this year that it was the first third-level institute in Europe to offer an online master’s course in AVs.

The institute also recently partnered with Athlone IT’s Software Research Institute as well as the Enterprise Ireland Comand Technology Gateway Network as part of a workshop to flesh out the idea of a national AV network. Researchers at both institutes are hoping to find a way of taking the futuristic ZB pod already manufactured in Europe and making it autonomous.

Not everything has to be autonomous, of course, as NUI Galway is trying to show with its record-breaking Galway energy-efficient car, or Geec for short. Over the past few years, engineering students have tinkered with the solar-powered car design to create a vehicle capable of travelling from Galway to Dublin using 15c worth of electricity, or the equivalent of more than 16,000km per gallon.

Meanwhile, a little further south near the JLR research centre, researchers from the University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute are leading an €8m EU-funded research project called Si-Drive to develop battery technology for higher-performance EVs.

Whether its EVs or AVs, the west’s autotech scene is certainly hitting overdrive.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com