With about three billion cars expected on the roads by 2050, more action is required if personal transport is not to remain an environmental liability


With about three billion cars expected on the roads by 2050, more action is required if personal transport is not to remain an environmental liability

Name the object that best defines the course of world civilisation. The Sunday Times put just such a challenge to a handful of public figures in its new year edition.

Mathematician Simon Singh went for the slide rule. Poet Andrew Motion chose the printing press. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson had no doubt: the car. More specifically, the gasoline-powered automobile invented by Karl Benz.

The answer has its merits. The car plays an intrinsic, arguably indispensable role in modern society. Hundreds of millions depend on their four-wheel motorised transport to get from A to B. Urban planners design cities around the needs of cars and their drivers. Roads criss-cross the planet’s surface.

However, more than a century after Karl Benz patented his DRP-37435 locomotive, questions are being asked about his ubiquitous invention. In an age of accumulating greenhouse gases, the car finds itself centre stage in the debate over climate change.

Can we drop the driving habit? Can the global ecosystem survive our addiction to the motorcar? If the answer to both is no, as seems to be the case, what are car manufacturers doing to solve the problem?

Pricing sustainability

A new study from Sustainable Value Research, a consultancy, into the sustainable value of car manufacturers – Sustainable Value in Automobile Manufacturing – provides a mixed report card of companies’ commitments. The study’s writers are academics from Euromed Management School, Queen’s University Management School and the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment.

The research benchmarks the performance of 17 international carmakers from 1999 to 2007. The rule of thumb is simple: a resource should only be used if the return generated is higher than the costs incurred.

As well as the usual value-based marker points used in financial analysis, a list of core social and environmental criteria is thrown into the mix. What emerges is a monetary measure of the actual value created by a carmaker relative to its competitors.

The results turn the standard sector ratings on their head. Significantly ahead are Germany’s BMW and Japan’s Toyota. Asian manufacturers dominate the second rung, notably Hyundai, Honda, Suzuki and Nissan. Among the US carmakers, Daimler stands out as the best of – generally speaking – a bad lot. Industry heavyweights such as GM and Ford steer towards the negative. The majority of European manufacturers perform only slightly better, with PSA Peugeot Citroen and Volkswagen posting the least bad scores.

The report’s aggregated values hide several important subtleties. Take carbon dioxide emissions. Mid-sized cars emit roughly 198g of CO2 per kilometre. A sports utility vehicle, in contrast, emits almost 50% more. Relativising the quantity of sales of different model classes per company is therefore a vital part of the research. Ford and GM, both of which sell a high percentage of SUVs, still perform worse, all the same.

Yet the study provides a welcome shift in perspective. Gone are the days when performance or trunk space were the sole determinants between sale and no sale. Consumers are wising up to the impacts of gas-guzzlers. So too are policymakers. Likewise, value-minded investors want to know which cars will be making the running in two or three decades’ time. Their money – and perhaps the planet – depend on the answer.

The research also carries two important anomalies. The first owes to timing. The world has changed considerably since 2007. Car manufacturing features among the worst hit sectors of the financial meltdown. The automotive business cannot continue as usual. If it does, Detroit will become as quiet as an empty car park.

Cutting carbon

Second is decarbonisation. Despite Copenhagen’s meagre offering, the policy agenda seems fixed on a low-carbon future. Sure, car companies can tinker with their manufacturing processes. Cutting waste and water use are both welcome and necessary. So too is looking for environmental savings in the supply chain.

But it is when carmakers’ goods roll off the production line that the real problems start. It does not require Simon Singh’s slide rule to see why. Take the 1996 Toyota Camry. A 5% reduction in use-phase emissions will equate to 3.75 tonnes of carbon dioxide during the vehicle’s active lifetime, according to the World Resources Institute. A 5% reduction in assembly-related emissions, in contrast, will save only 0.1 tonnes per vehicle.

The result? A race for the next big idea. Car manufacturers around the world are engaged in a desperate pursuit to design and manufacture the automobile of the future.

“It can be any colour, as long as it’s black,” Henry Ford once famously pronounced. For the Model T a century ago, the formula worked a treat. Today’s carmakers are chasing a similarly simple goal: any car, as long as it’s green. Oh, and affordable for the mass market.

A low-carbon solution, the argument runs, will solve manufacturers’ short-term financial woes and long-term environmental concerns simultaneously.

Getting in lane

So which route to take? Car companies are faced with three basic options: continue with the conventional engine but make it more efficient; modify motor and transmission technology to reduce reliance on fossil fuels; or ditch hydrocarbons altogether.

Option one has occupied the major part of manufacturers’ efforts over the past decade. One of the big success stories of recent years is the three-way catalytic converter. In a single step, polluting hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide disappeared from exhaust fumes.

Representative of corporate efforts is Volkswagen’s BlueMotion technologies. The concept is straightforward: making cars more efficient will lower fuel consumption, which in turn will cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Volkswagen’s list of fuel-saving measures includes an increase in torque levels in its diesel engines and a dual-clutch gearbox. Improved aerodynamics, an automatic start/stop function, low-rolling-resistance tyres and diesel particulate filters complete the picture.

The results are evident. The new VW Golf BlueMotion, for example, boasts carbon dioxide emissions of 107g/km – well below the average for its range.

Improvements to conventional technology undoubtedly represent the quickest and easiest win. Adapting engine and transmission systems can have a “significant impact” on car-related carbon emissions by providing “moderate benefits for a large proportion of the fleet”, according to a year-long investigation by UK automotive firms and the government.

Evidence from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association backs the assertion. Data from car sales in Europe reveals a drop of almost 20% in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and commercial vehicles since 1995.

Whether short-term gain will translate into long-term advantage is questionable, however. Such so-called incremental technology is widespread and well understood, an industry report by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers states. For that very reason, it is “unlikely” to help carmakers outstrip their competitors given all are following the same track.

Nor does incremental technology appease environmentalists. Better petrol engines still need petrol. What is required, they argue, is a break with fossil fuel dependency.


Enter option two, reducing reliance on hydrocarbons. Biofuels represent one of several possibilities here. Brazil, for example, began toying with mixing sugar-based ethanol with gasoline back in the 1970s. Today, a 25% mix of ethanol is the legal minimum.

However, cost concerns and the politicisation of biofuels – using a food stock for fuel is widely associated with pushing up world agricultural prices – has limited the take-up of such flexible-fuel vehicles elsewhere.

And so, all hail the hybrid. Hybrid electric vehicles are keeping automotive engineers busy around the world. Built with an internal combustion engine, they also make use of one or more electric motors.

Typically such vehicles combine the power of electric motors with that of a relatively small conventional engine to produce standard driving performance with much lower fuel consumption, while using onboard generators and “regenerative braking” technology to charge batteries while on the move.

The technology is not new. First toyed with back in the late 1970s, hybrid systems took off in the US during the mid-1990s. Spurred largely by the threat of aggressive state-level emission standards, the brief boom turned out to be a mere blip. The standards were watered down, and down too went interest in hybrids.

But this time the scenario is different. Policy targets are stronger. Government incentives are greater. And consumer awareness is more widespread.

Six years ago, when the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) leaders forum published its seminal Mobility 2030 report, hydrogen was perceived as the breakthrough technology. “Since then, we’ve seen a shift towards electric vehicles,” says Matthew Bateson, managing director for WBCSD’s energy and climate programme.

GM is one of the many carmakers to have opted for the hybrid electric route. The US car giant has invested heavily in extended range electric vehicles (EREVs). The resultant Chevrolet Volt will be unveiled in the US later this year, appearing as the Vauxhall Amtera in Europe during 2012.

An EREV’s onboard batteries, charged up from a domestic outlet, cover the first 40 miles of any journey. Four in five car users drive less than that distance per day, research shows. Theoretically, therefore, GM’s new hybrid should run on power taken from domestic electricity supplies for 80% of the time. After 40 miles a small on-board petrol engine generates electricity to extend the range of the car to about 300 miles – the car is powered by its electric motor throughout.

If successful, the move should provide a boost to the company’s sustainability credentials as well as its flagging sales. The pressure is high. “The research and development that goes into these new vehicles is very expensive. So if we do it, we need to make sure we get it right,” says Danielle Chapman, GM’s manager for UK government relations.

One company that already boasts success with earlier hybrids is Toyota. The Japanese firm launched its flagship Prius hybrid as long ago as 1997. The Prius, though, is not a plug-in hybrid like the Volt, relying at times on a petrol engine to drive the car, as well as charging the batteries that power its electric motor. Today, Toyota offers more than half a dozen hybrid models in its home market. Hybrid sales have so far topped two million worldwide. Toyota hopes to be selling one million a year by the early 2010s and to have a hybrid version of every model next decade.

Despite Toyota’s success, the commercial case for hybrids is still developing. Take-up globally is variable, with Asia considerably ahead of the US and Europe. Consumer appetite also varies within geographical regions. Markets in northern and western Europe, for example, are much more advanced than southern Europe.

“It took a few years to persuade people that it has a strong business case. We are still doing that. We still have to educate the markets and consumers that this is a regular car, just with an electric system in it,” says Etienne Plas, senior communication manager for Toyota Motor Europe. “There’s quite a way to go to really get out of the niche market and make hybrids a mainstream vehicle.”

Full electrification

Integrating hybrids into the automotive mass does not excite everyone. Some would like to see hydrocarbons gone altogether from the transport network: namely, option three.

“A Prius is still 100% reliant on liquid fuels. Yes, it’s a more efficient device. It does a better job of converting liquid fuels to kilometres. But if you don’t put liquid fuels in it, it doesn’t go very far,” says Gary Kendall, director of energy and climate change at UK consultancy SustainAbility.

Within present technological constraints, the non-fossil-fuel choice translates to full electrification. So far, plug-in electric vehicles that rely exclusively on battery power have primarily garnered the attentions of small, entrepreneurial companies. Start-ups such as Fiskar, Tesla and Aptera are quickly earning reputations as the electric vehicle leading lights.

For most large carmakers, plug-ins remain a pet project of their R&D teams. A notable exception is Renault. The French group is “betting the farm on going full battery electric”, according to Kendall. Renault plans to release a fully electrified family saloon in 2011. The Kangoo model will be market tested initially in Israel, a country where comparatively short distances make up most journeys.

The reasons are well documented. For electric-only vehicles to take off, a major revamp of transport infrastructure would be required. Towns and cities would need thousands of charging points dotted along roadsides.

The source of the electricity to power such vehicles is also hotly disputed. Currently, most countries still depend heavily on gas, coal and petroleum derivatives to generate electricity.

“If [electricity] is produced from fossil fuels, then you can forget it because the cycle will be again negative,” says Ivan Hudac, secretary general of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.

Neither of these hurdles is insurmountable, advocates of electrification argue. Innovative start-ups such as Better Place are already introducing “battery-swap” stations, thus averting the need for lengthy charge times. On the generation side, progress on renewable energies also gives ground for hope.

A bigger obstacle lurks: batteries. Charge times on existing nickel metal units – typically between three and eight hours – are too long. A range of about 110 miles at best is too short. And the cost is too high. It is here that breakthrough technology is needed, and here that R&D efforts are primarily focused.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Cash also helps. Warren Buffett believes in both. The far-sighted US financier recently invested $225m in Chinese battery manufacturer BYD. The Shenzen-based firm, which specialises in phone batteries, bought a defunct Chinese car manufacturer in 2003. Its development of a 100% recyclable, non-toxic battery could soon complete its ambitions to launch an affordable mass market e-vehicle.

“Put simply, this little-known upstart has accelerated ahead of its much bigger rivals in the race to build an affordable electric car,” Fortune magazine recently declared.

Despite the slump in the global car market last year, BYD’s share price increased fivefold following Buffett’s investment.

Queuing up

Car manufacturers can only do so much. Their contribution to a low-carbon transport future lies in developing new technologies. To a varied extent, all are on that path. But the speed of progress depends on others too. New alternative fuels, for example, depend on the oil industry. Clean electricity, meanwhile, lies in the lap of power generators.

Another key player is government. The introduction of scrappage schemes and tax breaks in many countries is certainly helping. So are tough targets. Carmakers in the EU, for example, are obliged to produce cars with maximum carbon dioxide emissions of 120g/km by 2012. What is still lacking is sustained, long-term support for R&D, companies argue.

Industry cooperation is also required. The signs are there. Toyota, for example, has signed licensing agreements for its hybrid technology with Nissan and Ford. Such cases remain too much the exception, however.

A final must is standardisation. Investment in inter-connected transport infrastructure, consumer awareness-building, fiscal stimuli and quality standards all need to be joined up if new technologies are to prosper.

The same is true for technological development. European, Japanese and US manufacturers need to be working in concert, Hudac says. “If you start developing different cars … then it will slow down new developments.”

Historian and journalist Max Hastings cited the AK-47 as his defining object of choice in the Sunday Times questionnaire. The Russian-made weapon stands as the 20th century’s symbol of death and destruction. If car manufacturers do not get it right, the conventional automobile stands in danger of becoming the 21st century equivalent.

Toyota and the Prius hybrid

In 1994, Toyota set itself the target of a 100% increase in fuel efficiency. The result was the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced electric hybrid.

Launched in 1997, it boasted twice the efficiency of conventional gasoline engines through the addition of an electric motor. Several models later, the Prius today achieves a fuel efficiency level of 35.5 km/litre and creates 89g of CO2/km, a figure unmatched by any other family car.

Toyota sold 360,000 hybrids worldwide between January and September 2009, representing 6.4% of its total sales. The company is currently working on developing a fuel cell vehicle with hybrid technology. The high cost of current battery technology, however, prevents the car from being commercially affordable now.

Five electric vehicles to watch

Mitsubishi i MiEV
Top speed: 80mph
Range: 60-100 miles
Price: £20,000-£25,000

TH!NK City
Top speed: 62mph
Range: 110 miles
Price: £35,000

Electric Car Company EViE
Top speed: 62mph
Range: 75 miles
Price: £16,850

Top speed: 80mph
Range: 100 miles
Price: £12,000

Daimler Smartfortwo
Top speed: 70mph
Range: 70 miles
Price: TBC

Source: Forum for the Future

Leading carmakers and their low-emission solutions

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