‘We’ve created these beautiful symbols of human freedom’
Veteran car engineer David Twohig shifted gear to join start-up Byton
David Twohig: “I studied electronics because, it was obvious even back then in the late eighties, that electronics were going to be big in the car industry.”
The Cork accent comes through loud and clear over the online connection to Santa Clara. David Twohig is a long way from Mayfield on the north side of Cork city, but he still sounds like a home-town boy, even if he doesn’t think so. “My wife is from Glanmire, ” he tells The Irish Times. “So she keeps my accent topped up. But I lived in the UK for a long time, and then a couple of years in Japan, and then 12 years in France has kind of savaged it, and now I suppose I’ll start picking up a Californian twang as well.” In spite of all the changes, this softly spoken car engineer still sounds unmistakably Corkonian.
Like so many who grew up in Cork in the 1980s, Twohig’s first car connection was with Ford, rather than an Asian or continental car maker. “I come from a car-mad family. My dad was a complete car nut, he worked for Ford’s down in Cork when he was a young man” he says. “He was a crazy Ford fan all his life, and I was one of those kids growing up, half-under cars and handing him spanners. So I got the bug from him when I was very small. He was typical of his generation, a very intelligent guy who unfortunately never got to get a lot of formal education and was mad keen on all the family getting a good education. So I kind of gravitated naturally to engineering.
“I went to UCC, studying electrical engineering, back in the late 1980s. It was a time, you’ll remember, when all of my classmates, bar around five, emigrated. Many to the US at the time. I was the only one that went into the car industry. I’m part of that generation for whom staying in Ireland just wasn’t really an option. I’m not one of those guys who left Ireland crying for the old sod. I knew I’d taken a professional decision that would take me around the world. I hoped, and I was really lucky that when I graduated from UCC, I was snapped up, even before I graduated. I studied electronics because, it was obvious even back then in the late eighties, that electronics were going to be big in the car industry, and I just figured that would be my way to get in.”
Graduating in 1992, Twohig was recruited by Nissan for its then-nascent engineering centre in Cranfield in the UK, and while he may have started small (“My first week on the job, I was given the ‘extremely strategic’ job of redesigning a bracket for an ABS sensor on the rear of a short wheelbase Nissan Terrano. Do you want the part number?”) he ended up working on one of the most influential and successful cars, ever. The Nissan Qashqai.
“We were, in Nissan at the time, blown out of the water by the success of the Qashqai. We knew it was a good car, we knew that the design at the time was a nice-looking car. But nobody saw the success of the car coming, and nobody had guessed the success of the two-wheel drive version. That’s because we were very affected in our planning by what happened to the original Honda HR-V, where the two-wheel drive version just hadn’t caught on. It was not accepted by the public, so we were wary, but they were prepared to accept ours, a crossover with only front-wheel drive, and that is the breakthrough that drove the success of Qashqai. No one would have predicted that when we started working on that car in Japan in 2002.”
Twohig then moved to sister company Renault, and was part of the team that worked on the first Renault Zoe electric car. “When we started working on Zoe, and it was a long time ago now, it was 2007 that we drew up the first plans for that car. Eleven years ago, when EVs were a lot more exotic than they are now. Yeah, I thought it was a bit of a dream come true. I was an electronics engineer, by training, but had become a bit of a jack of all trades, an automotive engineer. And now here was a company, Renault, saying go do an electric car, and very few people had done a full electric car at that time. The Nissan Leaf was a little ahead of us, and Tesla was getting started, but we were kind of pioneering how this stuff should work back then. We know how to do it now, but back then not that many people knew how the air-conditioning systems should work, how the braking should work, how you would guarantee those elements, and the safety aspect. But I thought the fates had kind of aligned for me with the Zoe, and it’s turned out to be quite successful: a bit of a slow-burner, but I am glad to report Renault can’t build them fast enough to keep up with orders.”
Petrol vs electric
Was it an odd shift, moving from working on cars that burned petrol or diesel, to working on pure electrics? Apparently no. Twohig says that the two disciplines are remarkably closely aligned: “What you’re interested in with an electric car is efficiency, minimising all of the resistance. You almost have to think of it like a bicycle, it’s about resistance, tyre-rolling resistance, aerodynamic resistance. It’s less about mass, oddly, than people tend to think. More about things like friction in the bearings. But that’s actually not too far off what you do in modern piston-engine cars, because when you’re chasing the last few grammes of an emissions cycle, or like the Alpine, where you’re chasing the last few milliseconds of acceleration, you’re kind of chasing efficiency in all the senses. So the difference is with an Alpine, you’re also chasing the outer edges of the performance envelope, but they’re not all that different, really.”
I was an electronics engineer, by training, but had become a bit of a jack of all trades, an automotive engineer
Twohig then moved to his starring role, taking charge of the project to revive Renault’s long-dormant Alpine (pronounced Al-Peen) sports car brand. A task that often seemed, from the outside, doomed to failure has blossomed in the last six months, since the first cars started to be driven by those outside Renault and Alpine, into something really special. In spite of a now-infamous firey end for one of the pre-production cars on an episode of Top Gear, the Alpine A110 has been hugely praised for its handling, its performance, and even its levels of comfort. As someone who also grew up learning to drive on the roads of Co Cork in the 1980, I wondered had that influenced the way Twohig approaches the design of his cars. “I’m not going to lie to you, and I’m not going to say to you that as an 18 year old, hooning around in my dad’s Nissan Bluebird, that I was dreaming of how I would set up an Alpine one day. I’m not going to give you that bullshit,” he says. “But like a lot of young fellas . . . it does give you a sensibility for how cars should handle, especially on bad roads.”
We all sort of expected that Twohig would then take a series of Alpine victory laps. The sports car maker has plans for further models, and who better than this talented Leesider to design and engineer them? Twohig surprised many, though, with a major corporate move. Just as the Alpine headlines were starting to roll off the presses, he left the vast Renault-Nissan Alliance and moved to a start-up of which few have heard – US-Chinese electric car maker Byton, which is showing off its first concept SUV at Milan Fashion Week. Twohig is now a vice-president of the company, and the chief vehicle engineer.
“With Byton, two things drew me in. One is, like the Qashqai, I was kind of getting the feeling in the water or in the air that these guys may well change the automotive industry. Fair enough, I may be wrong, but there’s elements in the company that make me think that these guys may be on to something major,” says Twohig. “The second element is that I probably would not have had the courage to make the jump into Byton, leaving a very comfortable, secure, well-paid, fantastic job in a huge conglomerate, I would not have been able to do that without the experience of working at Alpine. They absolutely do have something in common, and I’m so glad to have had the Alpine experience. Which was, to slightly exaggerate but not by much, 130 guys shoved into a shed outside the Renault Techno Centre, with a limited budget and told to, basically, throw the rule book away. Yours truly was put in charge of all that, and told in four years’ time to come back out of the shed with a finished car. And it had better be good.”
Byton’s concept model, which (it hopes) previews a production car for 2019 (and saloon and MPV derivatives to follow) is relatively conventional-looking on the outside, but really quite different inside. The cabin is designed around an enormous 49x9.8-inch screen, which acts as both information centre and entertainment hub, and is supposed to be used by all the car’s occupants. The front two seats also gimbal inwards by 12 degrees, to allow for easier conversations, all in the name of making sitting in traffic more agreeable. “I genuinely think that Byton is focusing on what would be in the old marketing speak a ‘genuine un-met need’. A genuine human requirement,” says Twohig.
130 guys shoved into a shed outside the Renault Techno Centre, with a limited budget and told to, basically, throw the rule book away... And in four years’ time to come back out of the shed with a finished car
“Because car guys, like myself, we love cars and we’ve created these beautiful things, which are a symbol of human freedom, but we’ve created a problem. We’ve created an environmental problem, about which many people can speak more eloquently than I, but we’ve also created a problem of serious congestion in the major cities of the world. That’s true in Paris, in Dublin, in London, in the massive urban centres in Asia. So people are spending hours of their day stuck in traffic jams, and we’re guilty of that. It’s partly the car industry’s fault, and Byton is genuinely thinking about how we can give that time back to the driver, and the passengers, and the user of the car. Make it so that time in the car can be genuinely used. That’s an interesting challenge, and we’re deeply, deeply thinking about it.”
Twohig’s not naive about the challenge Byton faces, though. The likes of Faraday Future have, as a start-up car maker, promised much but delivered little. Mighty Apple has at the very least decided that for now the car market is too rough a playground for its talents, and even storied Tesla, backed by Musk’s billions, has hardly found it easy to mass produce an electric or autonomous car. Twohig is convinced, though, that Byton has the right stuff. “This is going to sound a bit cheesy, but this is genuinely sincere. The team here – I’ve been tapped on the shoulder by a lot of electric vehicle companies over the years, who will remain nameless – but this team in Byton has a core of serious folk who’ve already developed a hell of a lot of cars, including electric cars. These are not Silicon Valley dreamers, these are car folks, who know how hard it is to do a car, never mind an electric car, and that very much reassures me. There is a core of experience here that knows how hard it is, and that’s a little bit different to certain start-ups that I could mention. With all respect due, mind you, because it’s a brave thing to do this, I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone.
“Plus, a lot of car companies, and a lot of start-up car companies, seriously underestimate just how much money you need to build a car. It is a horrendously capital-intensive business, not only the R&D side, but the industrial side. Byton is not underestimating the amount of money required, and has a very good opportunity to finance that. That third element is maybe very down to earth, but it’s very necessary. There are start-ups out there that think you can build a car for a couple of hundred million dollars, and that’s just wrong.”
So, how will he know it’s all gone right? How will David Twohig know, for sure, that moving from one of the world’s biggest car makers to an unknown start up, was the right decision? Perhaps appropriately, he reckons he’ll know it when he sees Bytons being driven on the streets of Cork. “I could say that we have metrics of success, like the first production launch, or when you do the press junkets with the journalists, or when you pass your first 10,000 sales, but you get the biggest kick when you see the first real customer, not someone who’s a friend or colleague, but the first real actual customer drive past you in ‘your’ car. Anyone who says they don’t get a massive kick from that, and a big grin on their face, is telling you lies. So I’m going to go for seeing three Bytons on Grand Parade . . .”