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Martin Whitmarsh: Racing to efficiency

Leadership Insights newsletter story

Martin Whitmarsh, chairman and co-founder of BAR Technologies, has a career spanning industries including aerospace, competition sailing and he was a leader of a world championship winning Formula 1 team. He speaks to ICS Leadership Insights about the value of innovation and why shipping should embrace it.

26 June 2024
Martin Whitmarsh, chairman and co-founder of BAR Technologies. Credit: BAR Technologies

What drives innovation at a company and industry level?

The imperative of war drives innovation. In my aerospace career, it was war which brought my first experience of rapid innovation, modifying aircraft to suit operational limitations and accelerating the speed at which we developed technical solutions to orders of magnitude quicker than the usual pace. I found that pace thrilling.

I think warfare can take various forms and that it has been a theme in my career – competition is warfare, racing is warfare.

Aerospace development has become a long process; military aircraft projects are technically interesting, but from idea to delivery is measured in decades. When I moved to a Formula One team, you could invent something on Tuesday, make it on Wednesday and race it that weekend, giving near-instantaneous feedback on innovations. 

The second world war created jet engines, turbocharging of engines, fantastic innovations in airframes. Even today in Ukraine we see people with small systems turning bits of Chinese drones into means to fight in Ukraine – disruptors innovating out of necessity.

In motor racing, there was the development of radial tires, fuel injection, variable timing, carbon brakes, ceramic brakes. Motor racing is a powerful influence on the automotive sector, and shipping is missing that innovation platform.

What effect does competition have on an industry, and how can it be harnessed for good in shipping?

The dynamics of competition that exist in automotive and aerospace have made those sectors more willing to accept, adopt, and challenge themselves with new technologies. The marine sector is very conservative for reasons like safety and cost.

Competition creates situations where you have to succeed. As businesses get bigger, you can create internal competition and that’s something I welcome. In aerospace, they have Skunk Works – small, slightly renegade crowds where the rules do not apply and if you are lucky enough to get in, you have the freedom to innovate.

As organisations get bigger and more multinational, the necessary process control and governance stifles innovation. Creativity needs stimulus and it needs freedom, so you have to give people power and not micromanage them; give people accountability, responsibility and empowerment, and they will make things happen. 

Without that hotbed of competition like the automotive sector has in racing, there isn’t such a stimulus for shipping.

How do we create a better understanding of the value of efficiency?

As a society, I think dynamic energy pricing will bring real change in the way people think about energy and efficiency. If you saw that at 04:00 you would be charged next to nothing for electricity, but at 20:00 it costs a fortune, you would change your behaviour. 

We want energy and the comfort it brings, but we need to become more energy conscious in how we decide to use it. Electric cars are a real opportunity for distributed energy storage, taking up power off-peak and selling it back during peak times while dealing with the intermittency of some green electricity production methods. 

By creating the market conditions to buy energy, store energy, and trade energy, we would be incentivised to treat it efficiently.

How did your career experience shape your approach to bringing technology to commercial shipping?

When we entered that maritime market, I remember saying to the team, we are not going to be the solution provider. We will instead develop analysis tools so others can assess the value of technical solutions. 

We launched our Ship System Efficiency Analysis Tool (ShipSEAT) to give a thorough analysis of how various technologies and changes to a vessel will impact its performance, but we saw a lack of really good solutions to actually analyse. We identified an opportunity to get into wind propulsion, where there were only inefficient rotors at the time. 

Wind power is free and harnessing it is cheap. While it’s not the whole solution, we saw potential fuel consumption reductions of 30% and more. In the end, each of our WindWings®  typically saves 1.5 tonnes of fuel every single day at sea. 

It’s not just about being virtuous in terms of carbon emissions and pollution, though. If we look ahead at future fuels, which are three to five times as expensive as HFO, the business case for wind is so much better, and you still have those environmental benefits.

We recently announced our deal with Union Maritime, the largest wind propulsion deal ever, which shows the growing level of acceptance for wind propulsion in shipping.

Does shipping need technology or policy in order to decarbonise?

Policy. When I started in offshore wind in the UK, there was no government policy and we were shouting for a government target of 10 megawatts of wind power. You need those targets, those signals to invest, so that the industry can get moving and be confident in making money with lower risk. Now the UK target for offshore wind is 50 gigawatts by 2030. 

What has driven change in the automotive sector is increasing pressure on taxation of carbon. If we tax the carbon emissions of every vehicle in the world, in the air, on the road, on rails, or at sea, that will drive change. Withholding approval for vessel designs unless they meet certain efficiency standards is another means to progress.

I think the imperative will come when people realise we are going to make this planet uninhabitable. That’s the final conflict that will drive innovation towards a solution. If we’re more intelligent, we can solve it cheaper, more easily and less painfully now than waiting for that ultimate imperative.