Fiona Howarth is currently the CEO at Octopus Electric Vehicles and her role involves helping people and businesses make the switch to driving zero-emissions electric vehicles (EVs) for a cleaner future.
Following a scholarship to Oxford University, where Fiona studied Engineering, Economics and Management, she went to work at BMW in the fuel cell division.
A five-year stint with a top-tier management consultancy followed where Fiona worked with a FTSE 100 energy company on a 10-year strategy review to inform global investment decisions.
As energy was becoming Fiona’s field of expertise, she was seconded to the Department for the Energy & Climate Change (DECC). From 2011, Fiona spent the next five years launching market-leading connected home products. This started with British start-up Alert Me, who later became part of the leading smart home provider Hive, a British Gas innovation.
After time spent with Ovo Energy and a company supplying smart meters to the big six energy companies, Fiona became CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles, part of the Octopus Energy Group. Here, her job is all about championing the transition to electric vehicles.
EDs: Your academic background is in science and management – a similar background to Elon Musk’s – do you see these are two vectors for a successful career in emobility?
When it comes to building businesses in energy and tech it’s helpful to understand the tech and the commercials. I loved combining both in my degree – a Masters in Engineering, Economics and Management – and combining this with nearly twenty years in the entech sector has definitely given me solid grounds to build off.
It has helped to understand how the auto sector and the electricity sector come together in the rollout of electric cars, especially when thinking about the opportunities that exist within emobility.
What Elon has done has accelerated the arrival of electric vehicles by at least 10 years. I would be over the moon if I can achieve even a fraction of what Elon has done in the electric vehicle market.
EDs: You’ve spent some time working in government on secondments. Do you think the UK government is doing enough to speed up the transition to electric vehicles?
The UK government has done a huge amount to help accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles. Until now, the government has supported us a lot in terms of grants, investing in the charging network, and other incentives.
The low company car tax rate is a great example of just one of these incentives to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. Also known as the benefit-in-kind (BiK) rate, it dropped to zero percent last year for electric vehicles, and won’t increase above two percent by 2025, which is tiny compared to the 20-40 percent BiK rate on petrol and diesel cars.
EDs: Does it make sense for companies to switch to electric vehicles?
This makes it a no-brainer to switch to an electric vehicle as a company car. It also allows employers to offer a fantastic benefit scheme with electric vehicle salary sacrifice. Employers can set up a scheme that allows their employees to get a brand new electric car and pay from their gross salary, saving on both income tax and national insurance.
In turn, that makes electric vehicles cheaper than their petrol or diesel equivalents. This is a fantastic way for employers to attract and retain talent, help your staff to save money and boost your company’s sustainability efforts all in one go.
The need for government support is changing over time. We need to continue to maintain a great auto sector here in the UK by supporting battery factories, battery innovation and the rest of the electric vehicle supply chain. This will enable us to build a new auto industry here in the UK, delivering long term benefits for our community.
EDs: You’ve been CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles for coming up to five years now. This is arguably the time of most dynamic change in electric vehicles. What do you see as the significant drivers of that change?
It really has been a whirlwind. We’ve seen plenty of changes and the majority of it for the better. The first is notably Tesla’s expansion and how that’s impacted the wider market.
In the same way that Apple forged the market for smartphones, Tesla paved the way for the electric vehicle market. Tesla is the car of today. It’s literally tech on wheels and Elon Musk has accelerated this market.
This is so much so, that other incumbent manufacturers and new manufacturers like Polestar have joined them in bringing out amazing electric cars that boast impressive performance and range.
Our customers now have the choice of 50 cars that can go over 150 miles (241km) on a single charge. When you consider that we only drive an average of 20 miles (32km) a day, it’s clear that electric cars offer plenty of range for most drivers.
Secondly, the charging network has grown exponentially. In 2019 the number of public charging locations exceeded the number of petrol stations in the UK. Since then, the charging network has doubled in size, to the point where a lot of the rapid chargers are only getting one use a day.
This combined with the fact that two-thirds of us can charge at home – and more at work – means that there is a huge amount of charging availability.
When you add all of this into the mix with lots of different car options, salary sacrifice schemes on offer and government incentives, there is now a hugely compelling case for drivers to go electric.
EDs: Where do you personally see the next five years in the transition to electric vehicles?
The next five years are looking pretty exciting for the market, we’ll all be buying them. The big question that I have is; which car manufacturers can ramp up their production quick enough to be able to meet this demand landslide?
Some key questions need answering around the supply chain. Can we build battery factories quick enough to match the demand? What lithium facilities will be necessary? What access to other raw materials will be required? Manufacturers need access to the supply chain to meet the growing demand of customers.
Another trend I expect is the coming together of the auto and electricity sectors. More intermittent renewable energy going onto the grid means that when the wind blows, and when the sun shines, we can store it in our car batteries for when we need it the most.
With just 10 million cars storing energy and giving it back, we could power the whole of the UK at that peak demand. We’re expecting up to 14 million on our roads by 2030, so it’s not far away.
We have a market-leading demonstration project here in the UK called Powerloop which does just that. We have well over a hundred vehicles that are now storing energy in the middle of the night and giving it back to the grid at peak times.
EDs: What would your ideal electric vehicle look like in five years in terms of technology changes?
The electric vehicles available today are great. There’s often talk of a need to increase the range but I think that’s a distraction. Settling somewhere around the 200-300 mile (322-483km) range is a great option for most people, especially with the charging infrastructure improving all the time, making it quick to top-up on those longer journeys. There will be no point paying extra for battery capacity you don’t need.
Charging technology will also improve, from booking your spot at a public charger to more affordable vehicle-to-grid (V2G) chargers. Along with that will come new financing options and advanced battery data propositions.
It would be amazing to have approval on the technology required for autonomous driving and autopilot capabilities. I am lucky enough to drive a Tesla, which is so relaxing on long journeys because it does a lot of the driving for me. I imagine full automation is something we’ll see in the next five to ten years, rather than the next five.
Most excitingly, we’ll see lower barriers to entry to get behind the wheel of an electric vehicle through different types of financing models. We’ll borrow models from the big tech firms like Spotify, so you can get a monthly subscription to a vehicle.
It’s unlikely that you’ll own the vehicle but you’ll be able to upgrade every few years to get hold of the latest technology. People will soon access electric vehicles in the same way that people use a mobile phone contract.
Once the contract is over, the vehicle goes back and you get the latest new tech on wheels – the electric vehicle that best suits your need. In turn, your old car goes back into the second-hand market so we can support the sale of second-hand electric cars.
EDs: Are you hopeful that the emobility sector will truly play its part in decarbonising transport?
Absolutely. Tackling transport could be the biggest part of the story in decarbonising the energy system. Globally, transport contributes one-fifth of global emissions and three-quarters of the total amount comes from road travel. One-third of the UK’s emissions come from transport, so we must tackle transport to tackle climate change.
By switching to an electric vehicle and powering it with renewable energy, you can reduce the car’s lifetime emissions by 70 percent. This is critical, it’s available today and it’s a great option – they are great cars and save money versus their petrol or diesel equivalents.
Plus, if we can use car batteries to balance the grid at peak times, this enables us to store the intermittent renewable energy for when we need it most – making our energy system more efficient and moving to a green economy more quickly.