Interview – Richard Bartlett, senior vice president of future mobility and solutions at BP

“When I started we had petrol stations with attended service and the choice of buying petrol or lubricant and nothing else. Then we attached shops to them, and now we have supermarkets. That model will just keep evolving.”

Richard Bartlett is the senior vice president of future mobility and solutions at BP, best-known as a multi-national oil and gas company, but one that is transitioning to an integrated energy company which also has interests in biofuels, wind power, smart grid, and solar technology, and which accelerated its planning for electric car adoption with the acquisition of Chargemaster in 2018.

Bartlett started his career at Mobil 20 years ago, running retail operations, before transitioning to BP and working in Europe, America and Asia-Pacific in diverse leadership roles in commercial, finance, operational and business operations across the firm. He has spent the last five years studying advanced biofuels, and is now in charge of spearheading the firm’s transition to new energy technologies.

Are you an environmentalist as well as a businessman?

“I think I’m a bit of both. The environmental narrative for us all is really clear; we need to take carbon out of the environment. And I see that human necessity combining with the possibility of creating very exciting new business models.

“Even more excitingly, there’s a whole raft of new skills required to do that. We’ll be either repurposing people who come from within the company or bringing in people from outside with different skills. That’s exciting too, and our hearts and minds are committed to the transition and the opportunities.”

You’ll be perceived as working for a Big Oil firm. How long has BP been working in this space with any real purpose?

“John Browne, our executive chairman, gave what’s regarded as a landmark speech about climate change in Stanford University in 1997. It led to the formation of a business called Alternative Energy and had serious intent – but was probably ahead of its time.

“It’s probably true to say that the regulatory framework wasn’t at a point then that a business could be both profitable and sustainable. It was a heavily loss-making business, and we had to come out of it because the demand for its services wasn’t scaling. That’s not the case now, we have a bold and confident vision for the future. It hit a pivot point in February last year and is accelerating very quickly now. By 2030 around 30% of the group’s capital will be going into these new businesses. BP is taking this seriously.”

What’s the price of getting the transition wrong? Could it be ‘Farewell BP’?

“I don’t look at it that way. The business – businesses, really – have been around for more than 100 years. We’ve had to constantly refresh and rethink what we do. When I started we had petrol stations with attended service and the choice of buying petrol or lubricant and nothing else. Then we attached shops to them and now we have supermarkets. That model will just keep evolving – it’s a true representation of convenience shopping, and in some locations over 50% of the gross margin has nothing to do with fuel.

“And then there’s the all-new bits. We see really exciting growing businesses from areas such as offshore wind, solar, hydrogen – especially into industrial applications or into heavy duty mobility – and then electrification. And all this technology will need to be delivered with more customer focus and in a more digitally enabled way than ever. Look at it like that and you can’t see it as trying to dodge a bullet – there’s so much opportunity out there.”

Does the differing pace of change around the world suit a global company?

“It’s true we’re dealing with different paces of transition. The broad stat is that 50% of the world’s vehicles will be electrified by 2040. But of course every country has a different flavour; by then in many countries the sale of pure combustion engined cars will have stopped for a decade. In others, it might just be beginning.

“China is an interesting example. The Government has committed to decarbonizing and, as we know, tends to get what it wants, such that everything moves so fast. Ahead of the US or Europe, for instance, especially around car, battery and digital ecosystems tech. They have some very clear world leaders in the electric car and battery space. Part of my role is to position BP in countries where the intent is high, which is why I mention the UK, Germany, China and the US so much.

“It’s also interesting weaving in the city narrative too; last-mile logistics is a huge opportunity. And, especially in that environment, considering the role of subscription or short-term vehicle hire. My car was stolen during lockdown, and rather than buy an EV I now just hire a car when I need it. It saves me money, it’s convenient… I may have skipped a few steps, but the end point is there.”

Do you have a timeline for everyone joining you at that end point?

“Nobody knows, but the growth in ride hailing and subscription models is exponential. We actually partner with Didi, the global ride hailing company. The valuation is between $65-100bn and it’s year-on-year growth rates are phenomenal.

“And the space is getting more exciting because all ride hailers will have to electrify, so they will need to charge those vehicles up. And if 65% of city journeys go, as predicted, to ride hailing, you’ll start to see vehicles designed specifically for the purpose. There’s a huge shake-up playing out.”

Presumably there is another step – an autonomous car?

“Autonomy could be a game-changer. It’s so exciting, and while I know there are reservations, in somewhere like China it will just be decreed and then the next thing you know there will be lanes of roads set aside for it.

“If you take the stat that 65% of all miles are done by fleets, then consider that really none of those routes really need a driver; a computer could decide everything from where it is maintained to where it is charged, and all of a sudden you have an algorithm that is working out the vehicle’s energy provision. New business models will inevitably have to support that – and it’s exciting.

Where will all these electric vehicles be charged? Presumably the answer again depends on the country you are in?

“So, in China, where high-rise dominates the cities, 90% of charging will be done in purpose-built hubs. In turn, that means faster charging will dominate – people will charge on-the-go, and want to be quick about it. So that’s a focus for us.

“Then there’s the US, which is a contrarian example. There, most people have at least one garage – sometimes three or four. So they have plenty of space to charge slowly at home, although the next contradiction is that the distances they drive tend to be higher, so there is a need for a strong support network of faster chargers, too.

“Our role is to provide what the customer wants, whatever it is. There will be micro-segments, some of which may even hinge on your personal preference. We’ll try to cover them all. A good example is our location in Hammersmith, which we believe is the busiest charging location in the country. We have everything from 50-150kW chargers and they meet different customer needs.”

Presumably data sits behind almost every decision on expansion of the charging network?

“Not just the charging network, but certainly. It’s an ecosystem, remember. With our ride-hailers we look at everything. Where do the drivers live? Where do they operate? Where do they need charging? Where do they pick up customers? Where do they drop them off? We’ve got so much insight compared to what we have for ICE cars. We can be so much more precise – to our benefit and that of the customers.”

Can you do all this on your own?

“Partnerships and collaborations are essential, and that’s true across the whole ecosystem, from hardware and software through to vehicle manufactures, utility suppliers and more. We’re all building a new value chain and it’s evolving daily.

“With Uber, for instance, we’ve a partnership highlighting to drivers on their app where they can charge and allowing us to send them discount codes. We’ve got a deal with BMW and Daimler to have in-car dashboard integration showing where our charging points are, and similar with VW where their cars can turn up and charge at our points without the need for any kind of card or app.”

So you accept the charging infrastructure needs to improve?

“The situation is mixed. Where our technology is new, it’s the best in the ground. In Germany, reliability is fantastic and customer feedback is great. We’ve seen similar in China, where we have built from scratch.

“But in the UK it’s a tale of two halves. We bought Chargemaster, which was started in 2010 and which is now undergoing a massive transformation. We need to tidy up some of the legacy assets, and we are investing in that, often taking old chargers out of the ground and starting again. Then we’re bringing out a suite of products for home charging, smart charging, ultra-fast chargers and more. As we update, we see that we’re among the most reliable, competitively priced operators out there, but it is true that we have more to do.

“Our starting point is 20,000 retail locations around the world, with 10 million customers a day. It’s a nice place to start – it’s a long way from being from scratch. We just need to get them all converted into the energy transition.”

Do you talk to the OEMs you work with about battery size (because that dictates charge time) and what speed you really want?

“We talk to all the OEMs, and there has been a shift. There was a view that 100-mile batteries could be enough for some applications, but now the shift is to go much larger, so an electric car can always be a main car, not a second one. When OEMs offer the same car with different battery sizes, it’s the largest that tends to get picked. There seems to be a topping out with the 100kWh Tesla though – it seems to have hit the sweet spot.

“In turn that means people will need faster chargers. A car that takes 17 hours to charge won’t top up overnight on a home plug. We need to solve range anxiety, and faster chargers are part of that solution as well as bigger batteries.”

You mentioned Tesla there, and their charging infrastructure is widely praised?

“They’re fantastic. Their customer-centric, design-led thinking has changed the way the world of mobility works. Is it flawless? No, but a lot of what they do is simply fantastic, and in many respects world-leading.

“The question is how they will respond now they have competition. Tesla has won all the battles so far, but will they win the war? Maybe they don’t need to, but it will be interesting to see what the likes of VW can do with its scale and resources. And, as far as BP is concerned, we’ll take inspiration from anyone.”

How do you plan for so much change, with so many variables?

“The company has a series of strategies that can adapt to the disruptive technologies that may prevail. It’s also why partnerships are so important, because they give us sight of different perspectives.

“I also think that regulation is the key driver in energy transition. It can be a bottleneck, but so too can the supply chain not being able to react fast enough to allow manufacturing to keep up with demand. The semiconductor shortage is one example of that.

“At BP we’re good at managing large, complex, global projects with a lot of discipline and rigor, and I think that’s going to be really important given the scale of this migration to electric.”

Is the idea of battery swapping dead?

“No, but it does require standardisation so that every car has the same battery, or at least enough do. In China, battery swap works for Shanghai’s taxis, and it’s possible because the Government buys a lot of the same vehicle from a car maker that it part-owns in order to make standardisation happen.

“Now, it’s too early to call whether that sort of situation could dominate, but it could be something that is more exciting than fast charging in the long-term. It’s too early to call, but my suspicion is that both will be used for different applications.

“And there’s another perspective to consider, too: battery swapping for two-wheelers. Through our partnership with reliance in India we are ramping up something along these lines. It’s going well and we are looking to expand it in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, those kinds of markets. It has a role to play.”

You mentioned hydrogen and e-fuels earlier. Where do they fit?

“Most vehicles will electrify, but the largest heavy duty trucks are likely to have a more compelling cost point with hydrogen. Going up a long Austrian hill on electricity is probably a tough ask, and it’s an area hydrogen can deliver.

“E-fuels are tough. The economics aren’t there in that they’re expensive to produce right now, and they don’t resolve tailpipe emissions. I see it as a more viable solution for keeping the world flying, but in a more environmentally conscious way.”

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