Robert Palin

BSc Physics, 1997
Managing Director, Spaera

Now based in Los Angeles, USA

I was turned into something of an evangelical environmentalist during my time at Tesla and have now started my own company trying to accelerate a similar industrial transition for cargo shipping to green energy. Right now, I'm working on designing and developing a zero-emission cargo ship for transporting electric cars between markets.

Since nothing like this currently exists, a lot of my time goes into researching technologies that may be useful and identifying both opportunities and challenges along the way to our goal.

What’s the best thing about what you’re doing now?

The best thing by far is having the freedom & autonomy to do what I think is best, and not just what is desirable to management, or investors, or whomever.

rob pailin

What made you interested in starting your own company?

At Tesla I frequently became embroiled in arguments about the 'true environmental cost' of electric cars. Through this I became very mindful of truthful and detailed accounting of what goes into delivering products. Cargo shipping underpins about 90% of world trade, with goods often making multiple trips across oceans before being on sale, but it has atrocious environmental impacts. The industry is paralysed by indecision about the way forward, so the door is wide open for someone to disrupt the market and demonstrate a viable path to a sustainable future.

Delving into the world of shipping has revealed to me that many of the challenges we faced at Tesla with the road car industry, and later the heavy trucking industry, apply to shipping as well – albeit pretty much scaled-up directly with the mass of the vehicles! There's a cultural inertia founded on a belief that decades have been spent carefully evolving designs and processes to near perfection, and that any further progress will be in the fractions of a percent. 

This simply isn't true, however, and often the blinkered view this promotes leaves people blind to how often fundamentally similar technical problems are solved better in other industries, or applications. They may have reached the peak of their particular mountain, but what they don't see through the clouds is that there's a much bigger mountain just across the way, and if they're willing to learn from it, they too can climb higher.

A very simple example of this from my current 'world' is that shipping veterans often openly laugh at the idea of using wind to power ships. They think that we moved past the age of sailing many decades ago, but they also are fixated on the idea of big fabric sails, wooden masts, and lots of ropes. The thing is, since those days we've learnt to fly, to go to space and to 'master' the wind to such a greater degree, that the real picture is very different. We now have computer-optimised rigid aeroplane wings turned on their sides, made out of carbon fibre, and exploiting vast databases of local windspeeds, and weather conditions, to maximise efficiency. These aren't the days of Captain Cook or Marco Polo anymore. 

We Are (Third Width)

How has your career developed since graduating from the University of Birmingham?

My goal when I graduated was to get a job designing Formula 1 racing cars. It took me 8 years to get there, but I made it. The reality turned out to be a lot less engaging than the ideal and I had a bit of a soul-searching moment for what my next life goal would be. I looked at going back to my Physics background and studying medical imaging techniques, but I decided I could have a more immediate impact with skills I already had, and moved into developing electric cars. That went from an interest to a passion, to almost an obsession!

In Formula 1 I was an Aerodynamicist assigned to the cooling team, so I mainly focused on finding ways to keep the car cool while making the least compromises to the aerodynamic performance of the car as a whole. I really enjoyed being part of the Williams F1 team – especially getting to talk to industry legends like Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head – but there was a strong sense of frustration at the way that the whole development process was approached, and in particular how creativity was effectively frowned upon. The goal was to find a design that worked well on a competitor car, copy it and then develop it to see if we could make it better. Discovering the extent to which politics dominated even the engineering side of the sport was also a disappointment and I was engaged in amateur racing myself at the time, which was very difficult to continue with the demanding work hours of F1 so I made the emotional decision to leave.

Joining Tesla was around 50/50 a desire to apply my aerodynamics skills to something productive for the world, and a curiosity to live in a different country. I became the Lead Aerodynamicist and it was my role to not just develop the aerodynamics of Tesla's cars, but to really define what that even meant. The focus at Tesla is on ground-up engineering, based on fundamental science, rather than industry best practices, or tradition. Not only was I able to really dig into what aspects of aerodynamics were most salient to making an efficient road vehicle, but also I had to defend that process against constant scrutiny by other specialist engineers, who were also under extreme pressure not to give in to any requested compromises to their areas to accommodate aerodynamic needs. It was often a somewhat gladiatorial environment, but one where facts and science were the most powerful weapons, and my training in Physics prepared me perfectly for it. 

What skills you learned from degree would you say you use most now?

The skills the Physics Department instilled in me have proven invaluable during my working experience, and are (sadly) incredibly rare and precious out in the 'real world' of science and engineering. I think it's all about understanding numbers and units. People in engineering far too often believe numbers they're given, as if they're somehow gospel, but understanding what measurements or assumptions were made to generate those numbers is critical in assigning meaning to them and, crucially, in making decisions based upon them. That applies across the board too, such as in politics or economics, where you really have to be careful with badly-designed polls, or questionnaires, and the statistics generated from them. 

I'd say it's truly knowing what you know, how well you know it and especially what you *don't* know. Often we have to make plans and judgements based on imperfect information, but having that fundamental understanding of *how* imperfect it is, and how much allowance you might then have to make for your plans to actually work, is precious. It could be as simple as knowing how early/late a train typically is so you know which one to take to get you to an airport in time for your flight, or more complex, like choosing between quotes from suppliers, but knowing that one is more dependent on variable material costs, or labour hours, or whatever. So many poor decisions get made because people see numbers and take them at face value. I certainly do still make poor decisions, and a little too often, but at least I usually have contingency measures in place, having understood the odds and consequences that bit better due to my training. 

What’s been the biggest influence on your career?

I would say that the biggest influence on my career has been a proper appreciation of numbers. Whether it's in politics, economics, or science and engineering, numbers are used poorly all the time and it's a vital skill to be able to dig through the nonsense to get to the real meaning. This has served me extremely well during my career, both by giving my own work a very solid foundation, but also in deciphering misleading input information.

What motivates you?

Curiosity, mainly, then awe and admiration or our natural world. There is so much cool stuff to learn about and experience in our world, and it's very important to preserve that for future generations. I see it as a duty for science and engineering professionals to first understand how things work, then to turn that knowledge into actual tools for achieving our goals. Few people nowadays deny that we need to protect our environment, but nobody wants to go back to the Stone Age. It's up to us to develop ways to live in a modern but more sustainable way.

Why did you originally apply to Birmingham?

I originally applied because the University was prestigious, and the Physics department very well regarded.

Did you get involved in any extracurricular activities as a student?

My main hobby was karate and I trained at the Cocks Moors Woods leisure centre three times a week. That was an extremely challenging school to learn at but I wouldn't change that experience for the world!

What advice would you give to current students?

Feed your curiosity at every opportunity! If you can find subjects of study that can also pay the bills, then working isn't a chore, it's something you are actually hungry to do every day. The value of that to your quality of life is immeasurable!

Robert's fondest memories of the University

“Most of my favourite memories are actually of the friends I made whilst at University. I am still very close to many of them and consider them an extended family. It's possible for us to meet after several years apart and yet continue *exactly* where we left off. That's a precious connection.”