Let's get this invention on the road

A small British company could hit the big time with a motoring innovation. Sameena Ahmad reports

Around the world the giant car makers are pouring billions of pounds into designing the latest models. But it has taken a small, British hot-house developer to come up with potentially one of the most significant innovations in the motor industry.

The Torotrak transmission system, the brainchild of the patent licensing group BTG, changes gear automatically without the use of a clutch, solving one of the motor industry's last unconquered technological problems. BTG claims it costs one-fifth less to produce than a normal automatic transmission, uses at least 15 per cent less fuel and, according to those allowed a test ride in prototype cars, gives an unbelievably smooth ride. So much so that the company is introducing an artificial lurch to remind drivers when they are racing up a hill.

Transmissions, the parts on the underside of a car that we never see, are, crudely, what makes the engine drive the wheels. The area has been a graveyard for technological advance despite years of research effort. Engineers have long understood that fixed speed gearboxes are inefficient. To optimise fuel consumption drivers must be skilled enough to match engine speed with the car's speed, using the gears.

In theory, the solution should be continuous variable transmissions (CVT), with an infinity of gear ratios. But despite decades of research there have been few successes. The best-known CVT, and still something of a joke in the motor world, was the infamous Daf, Holland's only independent car maker until its takeover by Volvo in the mid-Seventies.

Launched in the 1950s, the Dafodil (later abbreviated to Daf), used rubber bands in its transmission, which became legendary for high-pitched whirring noises and delayed acceleration. In the 1980s car giants such as Ford and Fiat developed the idea using steel belts which expanded or shrank as the speed changed.

According to BTG, Torotrak's so-called infinitely variable transmission (IVT) looks quite different, using discs and rollers to dispense with the clutch. For the first time the engine is directly connected to the wheels, dramatically improving efficiency. A car with Torotrak can be driving at 60 mph, but at such low revolutions that the engine is effectively idling.

Though no car company has yet committed to produce a car fitted with Torotrak, Ford, Toyota and Getrag, which supplies BMW with transmissions, have all signed licences with full production in mind. General Motors should be next to sign.

Ian Harvey, BTG's chief executive, predicts that Torotrak could become the industry standard by 2010: "Fuel efficiency and low production costs are crucial to car manufacturers. And Torotrak gives the same handling as current cars. No other system has all that."

The potential of Torotrak has not been lost on investors. Since BTG was floated at pounds 40m two years ago, its value has risen almost 20-fold. Some overexcited observers even estimate that Torotrak alone justifies BTG's current pounds 705m market valuation.

Shareholders should not underestimate the difficulty of persuading the conservative car market to adopt such a radical new product. Maurice Martin, Torotrak's chief executive, admits that car manufacturers are formidably tough customers.

He tells of painstaking instructions from one licensee to position the transmission at a precise distance from the engine casing. "We spent so much time and effort getting it just right. In the end, the distance was too big. They told us to readjust it by hitting it with a hammer. We had to grit our teeth," he laughs. "But no car maker wants even the remotest risk that they will have to recall their vehicles."

Funding is another concern. BTG, yet to make sustained profits, is having to invest huge sums in research and in kitting out the factory at Leyland in Lancashire. Torotrak has cost more than pounds 10m to develop so far and will not be in production in a car before 2001. Half of BTG's recent pounds 25m placing proceeds are allocated to Torotrak to fund two years' research, yet, as Mr Martin admits, Torotrak's appetite for cash is growing.

That Torotrak dominates BTG's valuation also raises a serious issue. BTG is fundamentally a patent licensing group, brimming with more than 9,000 patented inventions. For investors wary of one-product biotechnology companies, BTG has been marketed as a safe and unique way to invest in UK technology. But the innovation has changed that.

As Mr Harvey says: "Torotrak is some 40 per cent of our valuation, which exposes us to the risk of failure. Torotrak is also a development company, taking BTG out of just licensing." The solution, and an option under review, says Mr Harvey, is to demerge Torotrak. Whatever happens, Torotrak's progress is one roadshow to keep watching.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
fashion
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Travel
travel
News
people
Voices
Jules and Delaney
voices
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

The benefits of Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Finance Assistant - Part time - 9 month FTC

£20000 - £23250 Per Annum pro rata: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pro rata ...

Marketing Manager

£40 - 48k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Manager to join...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes