Story | 05/17/2023 08:31:19 | 12 min Read time

Cars just went electric but it’s not enough – this is what happens next

Mark Smith

Text

Aliina Kauranne

Illustrator

The car industry has just gone through a seismic shift from petrol to electric engines. It’s still not enough to make cars sustainable. Now it’s time to look at their raw materials.

Cars are like time machines. Maybe not literally like the DeLorean from Back to the Future, but in the sense that their designs reflect the times in which they were created.

How cars look and how they’re built offer a window into what is going on in society at that particular moment in time. Indeed, it was legendary motoring mogul Lee Iacocca, the man behind the Ford Mustang and who was credited with saving Chrysler in the 1950’s, who said: 

“The most successful businessman is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good and grabs the new just as soon as it is better.”

The most successful businessman is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good and grabs the new just as soon as it is better.
Lee Iacocca

Today is no different. Cars are becoming an extension of smart technology, designed to complement our wide shift towards convenience, connectivity – and sustainability. Vehicles like the Audi e-Tron and Jaguar I-Pace are in high demand because they’re powered by electricity and offer a sleek, futuristic look.

When it comes to the future, this is just the beginning.

A perfect storm

It’s difficult to think of a time when manufacturers have faced such a perfect storm of pressure for change to be achieved quickly. Demands are coming from three directions: legislators, investors and customers. 

Legislation is a major driver for change, with the EU having set an obligation to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2050, while its 2030 reduction targets have also been increased from 40% to 55%. Road transport is a major source of greenhouse gasses, producing around 15% of the EU’s CO2 emissions.

Funders, too, are increasingly interested in sustainability.

“Attracting capital markets and funds that lay key emphasis on environmental, social, and corporate governance, which in turn raises capital funding,” says Matthias Schmidt, European Autos Market Analyst at German-based Schmidt automotive research.

There is also consumer pressure. In a recent UK survey two thirds of people questioned said they considered the environmental impact of their latest vehicle before the purchase, with over half (52%) stating that it would be the primary consideration when deciding on their next car purchase. It also found that people were willing to pay over £2,000 (about € 2,700) more for a vehicle with a greener emissions rating.

This means the automotive sector has to re-evaluate everything from fuels to supply chains, design and marketing. 

Contrary to some public opinion, the car industry realises it needs to get onboard with sustainability and is already taking major steps to do so, says Martin Ledwon, Vice President Marketing, Sustainability and Communications at UPM Biochemicals.

Any big car manufacturer that we’re talking to have large teams basically scrutinising every little screw for its carbon footprint.

Any big car manufacturer that we’re talking to have large teams basically scrutinising every little screw for its carbon footprint. And they’re thinking beyond carbon footprint already. They look at topics like biodiversity, they look at topics like social sustainability.”

Trending now: Weight watchers for cars

There’s a popular legend that the Easter German Trabants, also coined as “the worst car ever made” were built of cardboard. In fact, they were made of material called duroplast, a plastic reinforced with recycled cotton waste. But in 2022 the legend was kind of turned into reality – and for a good reason.

I think it’s a matter of time when we get stronger focus on how to reduce the weight.

Justin Harnoss from strategy and innovation agency Gemic consults leading automotive companies with their future-proofing strategies. At the moment he’s most excited about lightweight construction of cars.

“There’s a car called Oli from Citroën. They're using cardboard materials that are super lightweight, but they figured out a way to make them quite robust.”

Over the last few decades the weight of cars has increased significantly. This trend is now likely to reverse, says Harnoss.

“I think it’s a matter of time when we get stronger focus on how to reduce the weight. Lightweight construction is essential as in the context of electrification it gives you more range, and in the context of sustainability, heavy use of resources is quite problematic.”

With lightness come lighter looks, says Matthias Schmidt who has 15 years’ experience advising high level executives and decision-makers in and around the car industry.

“In terms of design we are seeing a growing trend to aerodynamics. Manufactures such as Mercedes are demonstrating this in green-halo vehicles such as its EQXX prototype. We will therefore see a more homogenous form of design with even SUV Coupes conforming to sleeker, streamlined, aerodynamic silhouettes.”

Two thirds of people questioned said they considered the environmental impact of their latest vehicle before purchasing it, with a third saying it was the primary consideration.

From carbon footprint to life cycle assessment

In the past, car manufacturers have focussed both R&D and marketing on how cars look, speed up and feel. But sustainability of the materials themselves used in construction is also now becoming a priority.

Recycling is a major driver in the industry, with BMW stating that half of the aluminium used in its current i7 is recycled. PET bottles are used for the covering of the car’s pillars, and roughly 50% of its copper is recycled. 

Materials that can be recycled and thus reused initially have higher costs, Audi spokesperson says.

“However, if you now imagine that a seat can later be found again in an Audi – perhaps in a completely different place due to recycled material – the higher initial price can be compensated for in the long run.”

Sustainability of the materials themselves used in construction is also now becoming a priority.

Instead of carbon footprint, the industry now focuses on life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its life cycle, right along the value chain.  

For example, last year Green NCAP ­– a green vehicle assessment programme – announced its first Life Cycle Assessment results, examining what it said was ‘the real environmental impact’ of some of Europe’s most popular cars in order to help car buyers make more informed and sustainable choices. 

“Manufacturers such as Polestar are being very vocal about publishing information regarding Life Cycle Analysis already and are attempting to get ahead of the curve and use this in a sustainable marketing manner as their green unique selling point”, says Schmidt.

Over 30,000 parts to be reconsidered

One car has typically more than 30,000 parts, many of them made from fossil fuel-derived materials. So, the search is on to find sustainable alternatives. Using lighter and recycled materials and replacing components which include fossil fuel-derived chemicals have become pressing manufacturing concerns.

One car has typically more than 30,000 parts, many of them made from fossil fuel-derived materials.
 

So in the future, car parts will be locally produced, preferably recycled, light and also fossil-free. Let’s look at their materials next. 

The whole range of innovation and action needed

One of the issues with plastic car parts is that they can include petrochemical components, which risks undermining manufacturers’ green credentials. Petrochemicals are fast becoming the largest driver of global oil demand, eclipsing the aviation and shipping sectors. 

The same carbon molecules can be extracted from bio-based raw materials such as wood. By breaking down the particles in wood, components such as cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – a tree’s natural binding agent – can all be extracted. These and other components can be used in a whole range of applications to replace fossil-derived raw materials. 

Using these processes in car parts has been a longstanding project of Finnish company UPM, which is utilising renewable, sustainable forest-sourced materials to enable the automotive market to reduce fossil resource consumption.

Already In 2014 UPM unveiled their Biofore concept car the Geneva International Motor Show. Its construction features passenger compartment floor, centre console, display panel cover and door panels made of thermoformable wood materials. Its front mask, side skirts, dashboard, door panels and interior panels were made of biocomposite. Work hasn’t stopped since. 

At the moment UPM is investing 750 million euros to construct the world’s first industrial scale biorefinery in Leuna, Germany, to convert sustainably sourced, certified forest-based biomass into next generation biochemicals for industries, including automotives industry. 

The sheer size of the car industry means that one company can’t solve the sustainability problem in isolation.

Every step counts. The cumulative impact of renewable materials on the car’s emission footprint could be significant. Indeed, Martin Ledwon estimates that up to 10% of a car’s greenhouse gas contributions could be removed by replacing fossil-fuel derived plastics and rubber components as well as industrial liquids with renewable alternatives.

“We look for partners also in classic chemistry. So, we're not putting something against chemistry or the chemical industry. It needs to be fundamentally collaborative. It's a partnership-based approach.”

But will we love them? 

When it comes to cars, four wheels, a driving wheel, something to sit on and the ability to reliably transport you from A to B has rarely been enough to impress. 

Cars are about feelings: How does your car make you feel when you’re driving it? How does it make you feel about yourself even when it’s parked up? Cars, perhaps more than any other product help shape our view of ourselves, and how we hope to be perceived by others. From the early days of cars, this has not changed.

Now it seems our feelings are changing fundamentally too. What was once seen mainly in the fashion sector is migrating into other sectors. A report by Boston Consulting Group found that 65% of consumers consider brands’ commitment to sustainable development when purchasing luxury products. And 80% believe luxury companies have a responsibility in the full life cycles of their products.

Companies are adapting, changing their messages and paying more attention to what new generations aspire to. Clients redefine themselves and the brands have to redefine themselves as well.

In other words, the very definition of a premium car is changing. As Audi puts it:

“Our actions have been shaped by our claim ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ (progress/advancement through technology) for decades. But what distinguishes Vorsprung has changed. It's about using meaningful technology to contribute to a better future. Sustainability is indispensable for our customers and the same applies for us at Audi.” 

What defines luxury is increasingly driven by a younger generation of people who are more values-led. Last year, Generation Y, also known as millennials, and Generation Z accounted for all of the luxury market’s growth. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found three-quarters of Generation Z (people born between 1995–2010), preferred to buy sustainably rather than to go for brand names.  

“As a result, companies are adapting, changing their messages and paying more attention to what new genertions aspire to. Clients redefine themselves and the brands have to redefine themselves as well,” says professor Frederic Dimanche from Toronto Metropolitan University, a world leading expert on marketing, branding and the concept of luxury.  

This means sustainability is the future of luxury. Industries, including auto industry needs to consider dropping its old understanding of what the consumer wants and consider new ideas. 

Down the sunny road

Zzzappp! You just exited a time machine in 2033.

You’re driving down a road. You check your car’s battery level. Have you really come this far on just one charge? You take a call (hands free of course) and cycle though your favourite tunes via your voice assistant. You pull up outside your home with its roof solar panels glistening in the midday sun. 

“Hey, is that your new car?” Your neighbour asks.

“Sure is. It’s 50% recycled parts and most of the plastic includes wood-derived materials. It also has one heck of an entertainment system.”

“Cool. Very, very cool.”

 

 

Author

Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Text | Mark Smith is a journalist, copywriter and author of "The Entrepreneur's Guide to the Art of War" (Arcturus Publishing, 2022). His work has appeared e.g. on the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph and Forbes.
 

Author

Aliina Kauranne

Aliina Kauranne

Illustrator | An award-winning digital artist and designer. Her video art pieces have been screened from Helsinki to Mexico City and Los Angeles and her commercial work includes partners like Apple, Gucci, Samsung, Nike and Marimekko.  
 
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