Sustainability and other “green practices” are part of many industries’ strategic goals around the globe. Car manufacturing, especially, has it high on their objective list since transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions. Being an environmentally-conscious company ourselves, we’d like provide the following suggestions for automakers to consider in their sustainability efforts, namely in:

  • Supply chain
  • Green car manufacturing logistics
  • Electric Vehicle (EV) battery mining
  • Autonomous (self-driving) commercial transportation

What is Sustainability?

Definitions vary, with the most often quoted one based from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Most industries in practice translate the above definition to mean minimizing both production waste and environmental impact. For automakers, this can start by scrutinizing closely all of their manufacturing processes from start to finish. Automotive manufacturing is a global industry. Suppliers of many parts can be found all over the world. These parts are shipped to other locations, sometimes thousands of miles away, for assemblage into a vehicle. These are then  shipped to dealerships to be sold, which can also be distant. 

Sustainable Supply Chain

So one way for automakers to be more sustainable is to minimize all that shipping throughout their supply chain. As discussed in Best Practices for Manufacturers When Going Green, this is done by manufacturing and assembling locally. As we pointed out: 

“The transportation of raw materials to your manufacturing plants depletes non-renewable resources like oil and gas while polluting the atmosphere with toxic pollutants and greenhouse gasses (e.g., carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, etc.). This is especially true across great distances like from another state or country. 

To be more sustainable, shop locally. Find suppliers nearby. This cuts down fuel consumption and air pollution as they transport the raw material to your facilities. The same is true if you need to send the material back to them.”

Automakers can turn to local suppliers for paint, for example. Or have their rugged mini PCs running their manufacturing robots be built a few miles away from the manufacturing plant. There’s also another advantage by staying local which is discussed in the article:

“Previously, we covered how the COVID-19 pandemic showed people that many businesses could function just fine paperless with a few modifications. The lockdown also uncovered the (lack of) supply chain preparedness as suppliers shut their doors across the globe. Businesses who shop locally will be far less vulnerable to such massive cut-offs, a trend we’re sure will pick up even steam.” 

Building the Green Car

Sustainability isn’t just minimizing wastes like releasing less carbon emissions. It’s also developing products that have minimal impact on the environment. Unsurprisingly, designers and engineers in the automotive industry hit this aspect of sustainability with enthusiasm. Examples include:

  • Audi is developing seat material made from recycled 1.5-liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. It will be used in the manufacture of a new A3 compact sedan and Q4 EV. This is part of the automaker’s Mission: Zero program which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 across its entire supply chain. This includes suppliers, manufacturing, logistics, to dealer operations. 
  • Like Audi, Ford is aiming to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. Some of its sustainable efforts include the use of injection-molded fuel line clips made from the spent powders found in 3-D printers; headlamp housings developed from the unusable skin of roasted beans; and the reinforcement of various window mechanisms using fiber derived from agave plants.  
  • According to BMW’s vice president for sustainability supply chain, 20 percent of the plastic the company purchases has been recycled as well as 50 percent of the aluminum and 25 percent of the steel. A typical BMW vehicle is made up of 29 percent recycled materials. 
  • General Motors’ director of global color and trim says that, by 2030, up to 50 percent by weight of its future vehicle line-up will be composed of sustainable materials. The automaker already uses recycled PET plastic for wheel well-liners. The brackets used to hold license plates and radio equipment are made from recycled plastics. And like Audi, GM is also exploring the use of recycled PET as a fabric which can be then made into carpet material.
  • Swedish automaker Volvo aims to have 25 percent of the plastics found in its various vehicles to be bio-based or from recycled materials by 2025. Its luxury electric brand Polestar already uses a leather substitute derived from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) like that found in wetsuits. 

Bringing all this together requires a lot of logistics. Industrial tablets should come with built-in RFID scanners to help keep track of inventory coming in and out of the various warehouses and plants. The Use of Industrial Computers in the Automotive Industry goes into depth how this maximizes efficiency and minimizes waste, both of which are part of sustainability.

Mining for a Sustainable EV Battery

The electric vehicle is, in many ways, the poster child to the automotive industry’s sustainability efforts and with good reason. In terms of efficiency, over 77 percent of the electrical energy from an EV’s engine goes to power the wheels. Compare that to cars powered with an internal combustion engine (ICE). They only convert about 12 to 30 percent of the energy stored in gasoline to move the car. A study in net emission reductions from electric cars worldwide found that EVs had fewer emissions across their lives compared to ICE-powered cars across 95 percent of the world’s transportation systems. 

However, the manufacturing of an EV’s battery is a different story. Emissions from the creation of the complete battery pack can be the same as building an entire ICE vehicle.

The life of that battery starts with the mining for metals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel. This is a destructive process as the ground is churned up and waste products like runoff are released into the ecosystem. Vehicles used in mining are usually gas- and diesel-powered which release huge amounts of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Afterwards, the rare earths and other “critical materials” used in battery manufacturing are transported to plants thousands of miles away. This adds even more carbon emission. “Even for just one material, it could be mined in one country, and refined in another place, and then converted into, for example, active cathode powder in another country,” says Qiang Dai, an energy systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory. 

At a battery manufacturing plant, the raw material is assembled into the battery cells. This is an energy-intensive process which draws electricity from power plants which release more carbon. 

Unsurprisingly, researchers are actively working on more environmentally-friendly EV batteries. Many are trying to reduce the amount of cobalt, for example, and replace it with nickel, which is more widely available and can actually increase vehicle range. 

Another way to reduce carbon footprint is through recycling. This year, GM and LG Energy are investing $2.3 billion to recycle used EV batteries. The goal is to make up to 95 percent of the recovered material available for use in the production of new one. According to the automaker, the process emits 30 percent less greenhouse gasses than standard methods.

Mining will continue until methods are developed that are ﹘ preferably ﹘ carbon neutral. Automakers and mining companies until then can look into making sure the rugged mini PCs running the equipment have such features as industrial grade parts and being fanless. This helps the mining to be more efficient, prevent breakdowns, and use less fuel. This can result in less carbon emissions. 

Self-Driving Sustainability Through Commercial Trucks 

Advocates for sustainable transportation have touted ride-sharing as yet another way to reduce carbon emissions. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that while such services reduce traditional pollutants, there’s actually an increase in carbon emission due to cold-start emissions. Switching to all EVs or using autonomous (self-driving) cars and their supposed more efficient driving systems have failed in studies as rider demand for them would quickly increase traffic volume to offset earlier reduced emission gains. 

Commercial vehicles like semi-trucks unsurprisingly emit huge amounts of pollutants. According to one FDA report on supply chain sustainability, the commercial transportation segment accounts for:

  • over 50 percent of nitrogen oxides 
  • over 30 percent of volatile organic compounds
  • over 20 percent of particulate matter

However, autonomous rigs have already shown they can drastically cut emissions. Automakers can equip their commercial transports with such self-driving systems as part of their sustainability efforts. Or start the adaptation by making sure each vehicle comes with a rugged mini PC with ignition control and legacy ports. A fleet of self-driving semis can then reduce carbon emission in that part of the automakers’ supply chain. Encouraging suppliers, part manufacturers, and other parts of the chain will help as well. 

Closing Thoughts (and CTA) 

The automotive industry is keen on sustainability as transportation is, among other things, the number one source of carbon emissions worldwide. Various methods like a more “green” supply chain to using self-driving commercial vehicles can help achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. 

Contact an expert at Cybernet if you’re interested in getting more details on the above methods of sustainability for your sector of the automotive industry. 

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