Hybrids, alternative fuels, emissions and China are all high on the agenda for Dave Shemmans, chief executive officer of Ricardo plc, one of the world’s top independent engineering consultants.

Emissions have been an issue since transport began – just think how the streets of London looked and smelled in the days of the horse-drawn carriage. During the Second World War, The British Army had an issue with its smoke-belching tanks, whose exhaust emissions were a bit of a giveaway to the enemy – it turned to an outside engineering specialist for help.

Like many of today’s vehicle makers, the army headed for Shoreham-on-Sea, an unlikely setting for one of the world’s foremost engineering specialists.

It was here, on the south coast of England that Harry Ricardo started business building engines for fishing fleets. But, he realised that cars were the way forward and today, Ricardo plc’s tentacles stretch much further than Shoreham. It now employs 1,800 engineers worldwide, 1,000 in the UK, 400 in North America, 250 Germany and 130 in Prague. Offices are now being established in Tokyo and Shanghai.

Ricardo plc is now one of the foremost independent automotive consultancies, providing innovative technology, engineering services and strategic consulting to the world’s automotive industries.

Due to the secretive nature of the globe’s car makers, particularly when it comes to research and development, chief executive officer Dave Shemmans does not get a lot of opportunities to blow the company trumpet.

Ricardo famously helped BMW finish the New Mini after the split with Rover, worked with GM on V6 engines for Saab and Holden and with Ford on diesel engines. It is now working on hybrids with various people on projects ranging from very small to £100 million plus.

Ricardo also works with Hummer on military and road vehicles, JCB, Psa hybrids and most of the Land Rovers in military use. In fact Military accounts for 12-15 per cent of business – mainly on future technologies.

Shemmans said: “We are not often allowed to talk about what we do because some manufacturers don’t like people to know technology is not theirs, or that they have had problems which we have helped them to solve.”

Two things which occupy the minds of Shemmans and his engineers are currently hybrids and China. A big customer is Shanghai Automotive (SAIC) which wants to be self sufficient and Ricardo has built a technical centre in Shanghai for the company – an example of how Ricardo is helping the Chinese to become “grown up” car manufacturers.

Shemmans said: “The Chinese market is very complex, there are many, many companies making vehicles. The industry will eventually shake out but at the moment the big issue is quality which does not seem to be in the equation – time and cost are paramount.”

While there is a huge well of engineering talent in China, Shemmans believes there is still a lot of ground to be made up. “There are a lot of people with degrees and PhDs but there is little experience. There is still a huge learning curve.”

Prior to joining Ricardo, Shemmans was operations director and co-founder for the Powergen plc subsidiary Wavedriver, specialising in advanced automotive technologies in the area of electric and hybrid transportation, spawned from a joint venture with The Technology Partnership where he started his consultancy career following three years as a senior power electronics engineer with GEC Marconi.

As the industry searches for alternative and more environmentally-friendly fuels, so Ricardo’s expertise continues to be sought.

Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda are proving increasingly successful although they harness electric power and petrol engines – how about diesels?

Shemmans said: “Ricardo is working on diesel hybrids but the issue is economy of scale – petrol engines are cheaper to make. With diesel hybrids there is a need to reach economies of scale – around 300,000 – 500,000 units a year – to make them viable.

“The problem is how do you get there. The current hybrids have been very good pathfinders and have helped the perception of Toyota and Honda as a “green” car companies. There is a need for smaller hybrids plus development of technologies such as stop-start.”

Shemmans also believes there is “massive potential” for hybrid technology in commercial vehicles where the market views fuel economy as much more significant.

He does see conventional diesel engines making a bigger impact in North America as petrol prices continue to rise there.

“The research in the USA is being led by the Japanese, Koreans, Europeans as well as the North American car makers. The thing with diesels is that although the engines are more expensive, the supply line and production is pretty much the same. “I can see diesel engined vehicle sales doubling in North America before the end of the decade.”

Ricardo is also looking at fuel cells but Shemmans does not see any take up before 2030-2040 (because of the price of development) by which time battery technology may well have overtaken it.

“A fuel cell hybrid is a possibility, although there are still issues with storage etc,” he added.

Battery technology is moving on at a pace, latest is lithium ion although this is very volatile and that is now down to management of the system through electronics.

“The industry is getting cooler on fuel cells, that’s the feeling we are getting.”

Ricardo’s main research thrust, beyond what it does with manufacturers is on fuel economy, emissions, CO2 and safety: low cost, small transmissions, dual clutch and active safety.

There is a market in the future for the “autonomous vehicles” using GPS to keep people out of trouble while driving and manoeuvring such as collision avoidance radar.

Shemmans said: “The biggest problem is the litigious nature of the North American market. But there is an ageing population that is in the market for technologies that will help them while they are driving.”