That’s the buzz phrase being bandied about at conferences where electric and/or autonomous vehicles are under the spotlight. But what does it really mean, and why are so many people saying it?

In days gone by, the world was so much simpler. Take vehicle sales, for example: before electric vehicles came onto the scene, there were essentially just two parties in the sales transaction – the seller (manufacturer or dealer) and the buyer. They may have negotiated on price and features but that was the end of the story.

Now there is a third element, because electric vehicles (EVs) need a charging infrastructure; hence the transactional relationship becomes at least a three-way one, with one or several infrastructure providers joining the party. To sell more cars, manufacturers need to make it easy for prospective customers by offering a complete package: a good example is Nissan’s relationship with PodPoint, a home charging point offering for private individuals.

The scenario gets even more complicated when we consider EV fleets, which have differing needs. There is the ‘back to base’ model, where vehicles return to the same place for overnight charging; here, partnerships will need to be formed with electricity suppliers, National Grid, equipment installers, etc. Then there is the company fleet, where employees with a company car will require charging points at home, at HQ and at regional offices. Yet another is the private hire fleet, where professional drivers will not necessarily be able to install a charging point at home and where, at the moment, there are relatively few on-street/public charging options. To add to the complexity of the situation, there is no interoperability between the many public charging point providers, so a potential user needs six or seven apps to access whichever is most convenient.

To manage these multiple relationships, collaboration is key!

Without collaboration, no-one succeeds. Without collaboration, the car manufacturers can’t sell EVs because infrastructure is a barrier to adoption. Without collaboration, the infrastructure providers have no customers because no-one wants to buy EVs. Without collaboration, the complexities of today’s world cannot be overcome.

Collaboration is also a game-changer when it comes to solving problems from multiple angles, such as finding a solution which is commercially viable AND has a positive impact on cities and the environment. Working as an ‘unnatural’ consortium of six organisations (including service providers, manufacturers and city authorities), the MERGE Greenwich project enabled the design of new services which provided potential solutions to inner city transport and congestion problems whilst avoiding the need for government subsidy. Whilst each organisation was a leader in its field, none could have, or would have, had the motivation to develop such a holistic solution on its own.

The UK is home to many global leaders in MaaS (Mobility as a Service) but we need to get better at collaborating to stay ahead of the field. Where once manufacturers competed against each other for market share, they now need to work together to build the market before sharing it out. (I am reminded of a scene in Shakespeare’s King John, where the warring English and French armies, both trying unsuccessfully to take Angers, decide to join forces and split the spoils once the city fell.)

Another way of looking at it is to get over that competitive phase, and collaborate to ‘grow the pie’ before carving it up. We should, perhaps, have learnt this lesson with the Go Ultra Low campaign: early electric vehicles didn’t catch on as expected, despite the offer of a £5,000 plug-in car grant, because industry players didn’t work together to inform the consumer about EVs. It wasn’t until four years later, when manufacturers and government collaborated to fund an education campaign, that sales began to take off.

A similar plan is needed to encourage the acceptance and adoption of AVs, and the Government is taking a lead here. The CCAV (Centre for Connectivity and Autonomous Vehicles) is helping companies get through the early phases of research and development by funding collaborative initiatives.

Minds and habits have changed in the last decade; now it’s time for collaborative working – which doesn’t happen naturally – to come into its own. Today, UK companies are in a global race, not just a local one, and complexity continues to increase. Now, more than ever, it’s a case of ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. And that is why collaboration is absolutely key.