Mike Keane, Chief Engineer of Electrifi was in conversation with Kevin Reid, Lead Collaborator of Ireland Made™
We take high-value, iconic classic cars and rebuild them with zero emission, high performance electric powertrains, chassis structure, suspension and interiors.
Limerick man Mike Keane, whose people hail from Wexford, grew up in a family of car people. As a child while his friends had Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady posters on their walls, Mike had Mario Andretti and Niki Lauda above his bed.
Even from his early days in secondary school, Mike knew that he wanted to progress to a career in the automotive sector and he began his formal journey when he qualified in Automotive Engineering Design from Coventry University in 2001.
What was your first job out of college?
I had assumed like so many others at that time that my engineering career would develop outside of Ireland and so I was very lucky to begin as an junior engineer with Extrude-Hone in Shannon, they were a tier-1 supplier to the automotive industry, specialising in polishing the high-stress internal components in diesel fuel injectors, diesel pumps, piston and conrods.
After staying with Extrude-Hone for two and a half years, what was the next step in your career?
I still wanted to follow my true calling in the automotive sector and I set up my own consultancy (Keane Racing) in 2004 focussing on motorsport engineering-support.
While things went well for a while, I was also doing general engineering to pay the bills and by 2007 work began to dry up as the economy constricted and the decision was made to move with my family to Ford in the UK.
During your time as an Integration Engineer at Ford, was that the time when people were putting smaller engines in cars that could more and more?
Yes, at Ford we had created the 1.0l, 3-Cyl Ecoboost engine. At that time the only engine that was smaller, was the 2-Cyl ‘Twin-Air’ from the Fiat 500, but that was very much a low-power option.
At that time, our Ecoboost engine one of the highest power per-litre across the board. Even taking V8’s from Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren, few of them had the power 120 ps (118 h.p.) to capacity (999cc) that our engine had, whilst also giving the lowest fuel consumption.
And that engine was from day one, a global, multi vehicle programme as it went into 27 platforms across the Ford range up to the Mondeo and even the Transit Connect.
So, will your headstone say; ‘Here lies Mike Keane who was a member of the team who worked on the multiple award-wining 1.0l, 3-Cyl Ecoboost engine?
While perhaps not on my headstone, it will feature somewhere on my epitaph.
You left Ford in 2011 and furthered your desire for a more specialised automotive role by joining Williams Advanced Engineering (Williams F1) where you became Head of Mechanical Engineering. What did you find was the difference in culture between Ford and Williams?
They are very different culturally and there are two parts to that difference. The first part is that Williams Advanced Engineering is a separate internal department to Williams F1, even though it is the same company on the same site with the same canteen and shared a lot of the same central functions.
The purpose of the Advanced Engineering department, as the automotive consultancy arm of Williams is to maximise the kudos of the name and to generate funds for the F1 department.
The second part of the cultural difference and in fact the biggest differentiator between Ford and Williams is the approach to cost-based sets of problems.
When I joined Williams Advanced Engineering it was to go onto a supercar programme, the Jaguar C-X75 gasoline-electric hybrid, which Jaguar were intending to put into production.
The C-X75 was highly innovative; as a supercharged, turbocharged 1.6l 4-cylinder, 500hp gasoline engine, with two electric-motors parallel-driven through a 7-speed AMT. It had a carbon-fibre monocoque and the highest energy-density electric battery at the time.
The whole car went from blank-sheet to working prototypes in 13 months. It certainly wasn’t a piece of blank-cheque engineering, it was cost constrained but these cost-constraints where very different to those we had at Ford.
At Ford, we had a saying that ‘Ford doesn’t do small problems, we only do big problems.’ What that means in this context is that a small problem with a single engine component going into 20 different platforms, can multiply very quickly.
The financial implications of raising the cost of a component even by a few cents can actually have a very big implication. So, you are far more cost constrained at Ford which is the catalyst for serious innovation although at a level that is not readily apparent. For instance, in the 1.0l Ecoboost the crankshaft was off-set by 8mm and it had separate cooling systems for the block and head. Many people equate ‘obvious change’ with innovation and that is not the same thing.
So, what you are saying is that the bigger you are, even with your economies of scale and being able to produce millions of vehicles, even very small changes can have a massive knock-on effect?
Yes, a small problem with an engine, given the huge production numbers that Ford would have, multiples very quickly across the company.
The bigger the company, the more volume they produce of an individual component and that is where you get that trade-off between the economies of scale and the volume vs costs being multiplied across a high number of components and products.
Being cost-conscious in this way changes the restrictions on what drives your product innovation.
What ever happened to the Jaguar C-X75 supercar?
I was Lead Propulsion System Engineer for the first prototype level and then Vehicle Design Lead for the second prototype level. 5 prototypes were built before the programme was curtailed in December 2012 , for economic reasons.
However, in 2014, the Jaguar C-X75 car was reborn as the villain’s car in the James Bond movie, Spectre. The team and I were able to create 5 replica stunt-cars for the movie. Although visually identical, the stunt cars shared less than 5% components with the original prototypes.
What else did you work on at Williams Advanced Engineering?
I led the development of a number of whole-vehicle prototypes, some of which have since gone into production, including the Nissan Bladelider, Aston Martin Rapide-E, Jaguar iPace show car and Land Rover Evoque-E concept.
When you came back to Ireland in 2016 with your family to join Liebherr Container Cranes in Killarney as Chief Engineer of the Rubber Tyre Gantry cranes and then later in that same year you took another step back into the automotive sector?
Yes, in 2016 came back home to work with Liebherr in Killarney and then I founded Keane Automotive.
My offering included management and engineering services working predominantly on BEV (Battery Engine Vehicles), PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and H2FC (Hydrogen Fuel Cell) powertrain and on thermal recovery system for public transportation vehicles.
And that brings us right up to today after you joined Electrifi in 2019 as their Chief Engineer. How is Covid affecting the company?
Once the lockdown was announced, here at Electrifi we immediately moved to a work from home policy and that came about very quickly.
And anyway, we were already transitioning at that time to a fully digital-company and the COVID lockdown has speeded up our transition.
So, who are Electrifi on what do you do?
Electrifi, founded by Cork native, Norman Crowley is developing a range of high-performance electric ‘Hypercars’ in Co Wicklow and we are becoming the first company in manufacture cars in Ireland of any scale in almost 40 years.
At Electrifi, we take high-value, iconic classic cars and rebuild them with zero emission, high performance electric powertrains, chassis structure, suspension and interiors and further optimise them by utilising the latest generation technology.
What is involved in giving a classic car the Electrifi Hypercar treatment?
It is not simply the case of removing the combustion engine and slotting in a new electric powertrain. There are two sides to the Electrifi Hypercar process.
Firstly, we re-engineer the original vehicle to make it suitable to physically receive the new electric powertrain.
Secondly, we re-engineer the car to make it able to perform all of its functions with it’s new electric powertrain.
A significant amount of re-engineering is completed on all components within the car. The electric motors that we use have much higher torque than petrol or diesel and can have a significant increase on the power output.
On top of that, we have found that some of the original chassis on classic cars not be of very high quality and they would also lack stiffness and strength as designed. In response to this we retain a portion of the original chassis and re-engineer it to cope with the increased torque.
We then go on to work on re-engineering the suspension kinematics (motion forces) from the vehicle handling or even crash safety perspective.
And finally, there are a number of features on the original car that we do not need to retain, such as large grill openings. While electric powertrains do require cooling, the requirements are a lot less than diesel or petrol cars and so we perform a very subtle ‘soft-backdate’ of the original bodywork.
You described the Electrifi bodywork styling influences as being ‘soft-backdate,’ to fill in air ducting and intake grills, tell us more?
It’s primarily a functional performance reason. With petrol or diesel cars, the high levels of heat rejection require a volume of cold air to pass through the front grill and radiator. The heat inside the engine bay also needs to have an escape route through vents. These grills and vents plus the air-flow through them have a negative effect on the external aerodynamics by causing turbulence and drag.
With electric powertrains, there is significantly less heat rejection and therefore less internal aerodynamics to be managed. So we can reduce the number of body openings and reduce drag. This improves energy consumption and vehicle range.
I would think that when you turn a perfectly good high-value classic car into an Electrifi Hypercar that many people would shout that this is sacrilege?
As the usage of cars changes, we will see a separation between transportation and leisure. At Electrifi we are not creating a piece of transport, it’s a piece of leisure.
I think that there will be a use for internal combustion engines for quite a while. However, it is better to think of electrification of cars as the next step in the evolution of transport.
In our not so distant past, we moved from horse-power to internal-combustion and now we are moving onto electric.
A century ago, horses were the motive power for transporting people and goods, for working farm and industrial machinery and were also used for leisure activities. There, are still horses in our lives but today they are only used for leisure.
Similarly, we will see a separation of vehicles used for transportation or mobility and of vehicles which are used for leisure activity. Electrifi cars sit in this category and so will classic petrol cars although there may be more restrictions in the future on when or where you can use your petrol car.
You have told me that your current claim to fame is that you haven't worked on an internal combustion-only vehicle since 2011? Why is it then that car manufacturers have been slow to introduce electric cars into their model range?
If you consider that the lead time for developing a new car is 5 – 7 years, then the big car makers appear slow to respond to what is now a fast-changing marketplace. But a new model released today will have been in development for at least a half-decade.
This is not the case with the smaller car companies who have been able to be more flexible and responsive to changing market forces.
Companies like Jaguar Land Rover in the UK are a good example of being flexible in response to market forces. As a company they were well known for their petrol V8’s and they have been small enough and flexible enough to move directly into producing all electric vehicle solutions for the future, like the Jaguar iPace.
I remember you told me when I first met you a couple of years ago that at this stage my car would be able to charge my house and I was like wow!! And now in 2020 that kind of technology is fairly commonplace? What are your new electric-technology predictions?
Firstly, I think probably the biggest change that will come down the line that people don’t think about is the ownership of their cars.
At the moment, you will have monthly payments or an outright purchase and this will in the future ultimately move towards a subscription-based system for you to avail of permanent or semi-permanent use of your car and you will have the ability to upgrade that subscription at any time.
A second technological advance will be that in the near-future when all of our vehicles are connected to the electricity grid, then there will be a focus on in-transit charging (on busses and HGVs to begin with) and also a lot more balancing of power between the vehicle and the national grid.
Thirdly, we must view cars as an inefficient means of transport, particularly in an urban environment. Aside from the space and energy inefficiencies of a car as a single-person transport, there is a lot of wasted energy stored in cars. If you take an example of Dublin airport having 8,000 cars in the carpark and each car sitting stationary from days to weeks.
As it is, they sit there with tanks of petrol and diesel and all that energy is just held there. In the near future, there will be several thousand electric cars in that same car park and each one of them will be feeding the electric power from their batteries straight onto the grid.
If you are due to fly back in on a Wednesday, on a Tuesday your electric car will start charging itself from the grid, ready for your return.
You may even get to avail of free car-parking if you plug your car into the grid for the duration of your holiday.
What is happening in the Electrifi workshop these days, what are you working on?
It’s a very busy time. I can’t tell you which specific models we are working on, but we are in middle of the digital design development of an American and also a British sports car and we have a prototype of an Italian sportscar in the workshop.
What is the engineering input into these cars?
A significant portion of the development of any car happens in the engineering office. By the time vehicles are built in the workshop, the major engineering problems have been dealt with already. Parts and systems can be engineered to a known performance and durability level. The workshop build process is about two areas: testing the systems together as a coherent assembly and applying the attention-to-detail of a quality finish.
Although people often think of the workshop as where cars are engineered, the design development period is where the high-quality really is integrated into the car. The workshop build is the application of that quality.
What is the future for the Electrifi company in Ireland?
2021 is going to be a big year for us. You will see the completion and launch of our first vehicle and a preview for our second vehicle.
We’re keeping relatively quiet for now but there’s a lot of activity behind the curtains!
Our thanks to Mike Keane, Chief Engineer of Electrifi, who was in conversation with Kevin Reid, Lead Collaborator of Ireland Made™