Thursday, 4 May 2017

Torotrak signals the end of an era

Preston-based Torotrak, a developer and supplier of emissions reduction and fuel efficiency technology in vehicles, is to close its Leyland headquarters and make all staff based at the site redundant.

This is indeed the end of an era. But the end cannot be allowed to pass without some comment being made. For it seems that faith has been lost in the concept of traction drive transmissions which had its heart in Leyland, Lancashire for so many years.
This is an era that many people have forgotten about. Or not even aware. Some may regard it as a nostalgic era, when the future appeared not only bright but lucrative.
The era extends back at least until around 1962 (the actual date is unclear as one of the principal participants is no longer alive) when a 1957 Hillman Minx fitted with a Perbury continuously variable transmission (CVT) covered some 25,000 miles of testing to prove the capabilities of the CVT developed by Forbes Perry of Perbury Engineering Ltd.
Perbury Engineering developed a CVT for a car project centred within the British Technology Group (BTG and formerly NRDC) out of which blossomed Torotrak plc based at Leyland in Lancashire where there was also a CVT programme, again based on the Perbury design.
The era certainly embraces BL Technology, a small part of British Leyland, tasked with exploring new technology and based at Gaydon, in Warwickshire – now the home of Aston Martin and JaguarLandRover. Perbury-type transmissions were developed on this former RAF airfield site.
It is fair to say that designs of the Perbury transmission were based on the Hayes transmission (once fitted to Austin cars), it being the point at which Forbes Perry’s designs began to evolve and improve this type of transmission. He probably started serious work circa 1957.
A great deal of water has passed under the bridge, most of it happening within the confines of the facilities in Leyland Truck & Bus which undertook some work in applying the technology to buses. Facilities in Leyland near to the original truck plant became the bedrock for Torotrak.
Executives of major automotive companies made their way to Torotrak Leyland during the last 50 years, all in search of the ‘perfect’ seamless transmission – that disappearing elixir. But for one reason or another, the reality eluded everybody.
Perbury Engineering was for many years the hub of the fountain of ideas. Yet no one liked to admit that a stand-alone engineer knew more about the transmission than anyone else. It was as if he did not exist. Boffins at Leyland believed they knew everything and looked down their noses at ‘clowns’ working in workshops in deepest Oxfordshire.
The little company in Oxfordshire however built a variety of experimental prototypes including those produced by Leyland Truck & Bus, from which people moved across to nearby Torotrak as the company evolved.
                      Careers built on the back of CVT technology
Countless technical papers have been written down the years in Europe, Asia and North America, about CVTs as engineers expounded their ideas about one tiny facet or another of the design. Indeed, careers were forged on the back of the Perbury system.
Now it looks as though, in a bid to cut costs, a huge slimming down process is under way which could see the end of the Perbury-type transmission. Of course, many will dispute that the current design is a Perbury design, as so many man-hours have been invested in pushing out the frontiers of knowledge to expand the power base of understanding of this simple design which relies on traction drive characteristics.
Torotrak plc, which specialises in the use of ground-breaking KERS technology for buses and V-Charge to boost the power of smaller engines for cars, has seen its share price tumble as the car industry has turned its attention to electric cars instead of making traditional engines more efficient.
Interestingly, none of the directors of the company have any history in toroidal transmissions - a passion to drive the technology forward into the market place. None has held board directorship for longer than four years, with the exception of non-executive chairmanNick Barter who joined in 2003. The most recent encumbent is Adam Robson, (April 2015). John McLaren and Rex Vevers joined in June 2013 while Jon Hilton, who is also president of the prestigious Institution of Mechanical Engineers, joined in January 2014. 
In January, Torotrak (which has seen chief executives come and go) announced a strategic refocus of the group including the consolidation of its engineering resources to reduce its ongoing cash operating costs. Indeed, it is possible that some may view Torotrak's acquisition of Flybrid Automotive as a clever device for the Silverstone-based company to reverse into Torotrak plc. Time alone will reveal the outcome.
The company, which also has an office and workshops in Silverstone, has not given details of how many people will be affected but company accounts to March 2016 show it employed 85 staff, 57 of which were engineers at the Leyland site, and it had a total wage bill of £4.7million.
Significantly, perhaps, the Silverstone unit was the technology hub for Flybrid Automotive which became part of Torotrak and led to the emergence of Flybrid executives having a greater say in the running of the company. After all, it was Flybrid Automotive’s KERS technology which now appears to be driving Torotrak forward – if indeed it is making any headway at all.
Last year’s Torotrak plc pre-tax losses almost doubled to £14.3million on a turnover of £1.2 million. Could Torotrak be on the verge of throwing in the CVT towel? It appears not from today’s statement. But who knows the truth?
“The board continues to focus on realising value from Torotrak’s technology portfolio and other assets,” Torotrak said today in a stock market statement.
The group said it expects to close the financial year to the end of March with £5.1 million in cash, in line with expectations but added that the net assets of the company will fall below half of the value of the called-up share capital.  
Under Section 656 of the Companies Act 2006, when this happens the directors are required to call a general meeting of the company to discuss whether steps should be taken to deal with the situation. It will hold this meeting on 31st May.
“The board does not consider that any steps are required to be taken beyond those already in hand and accordingly, no resolutions will be put to Shareholders at the General Meeting,” it said.
So there we have it. The company rumbles on. The question has to be raised, after this recent activity: just how long can Torotrak survive? The technology does not seem to be attractive enough for an OEM to step in and buy the company to add to its portfolio. But of course this could change.
Only in the minds of those ‘running’ Torotrak is there perhaps the germs of ideas to take the technology strands forward. But these minds are holding their real thoughts close to their chests. Whether the truth of Torotrak's collapse ever emerges remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Toyota to put fuel cells in heavy trucks

Toyota Motor North America, Inc. has revealed “Project Portal” - a hydrogen fuel cell system designed for heavy duty truck use at the Port of Los Angeles.