Electric vehicles are on the charge. In the face of stricter regulations, and in the wake of damaging fraud scandals, the automotive sector is investing huge resources in electric powertrain technologies. Carmakers are rushing to introduce battery-powered vehicles and integrate some degree of electric propulsion across their portfolios.

The transition to vehicles that produce zero driving emissions is becoming a race between manufacturers and regulators. Regional and national governments have proposed bans on the production of new vehicles with internal combustion engines by the 2040s. The industry expects to beat those deadlines by a comfortable margin.

SUSTAINABLE WORKING: Carmakers are aiming to reduce the emissions resulting from their assembly lines.

Reducing the fumes and particulates emitted by vehicles on the road is undeniably valuable, especially for people living in cities plagued by poor air quality. But the tailpipe is only part of the environmental story. Carmaking affects the environment in numerous other ways, from the energy consumed in the manufacture, assembly and maintenance of vehicles to the potentially toxic materials used in those activities.

The automotive industry's progress on the issue of driving emissions is increasing the relative significance of these other environmental challenges. Toyota, for example, has conducted cradle-to-grave life cycle assessments (LCAs) to quantify the total environmental impact of several models in its portfolio. If renewable energy is used to charge its battery overnight, the company's Prius plugin hybrid has lifetime carbon dioxide emissions of around 30 percent lower than the comparable conventional hybrid model, but the share of those emissions that results from production and assembly activities rises from less than half to around two-thirds.

Routes to zero life cycle emissions 

The industry is not ignoring the implications of that change. Toyota wants to eliminate carbon emissions from both its vehicles and its factories by 2050, and ultimately aims to achieve zero emissions across the complete vehicle life cycle. Other carmakers and suppliers have also set sustainability targets that consider the full scope of their activities and supply chains. By 2020 BMW, for example, aims to reduce the quantity of water, energy waste and solvents consumed in the production of a vehicle by 45 percent (taking its 2006 performance as the baseline). Tiremaker Michelin plans to improve energy efficiency by 38 percent as part of a program to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the environmental impact of its own operations by 2020.

WATERED DOWN: The amount of water needed to manufacture a VW Golf has been reduced by 1,140 liters.

In many cases, environmental performance goals are fully aligned with the metrics that automotive companies already strive to optimize. Efficient, high-quality processes mean less material wasted as scrap and lower energy consumption, for example. But the pursuit of zero emissions is encouraging the adoption of new approaches and technologies too.

Generating the energy required to power assembly activities from renewable sources is a relatively straightforward way to cut carbon emissions at the plant level. Some carmakers choose to buy renewable energy from external providers and import it through the grid, but a growing number are taking a more active role in power generation. Ford has partnered with U.K. renewables company Ecotricity to install three wind turbines that power its engine production site in Dagenham, East London. Tesla says its Gigafactory lithium battery plant in the U.S. state of Nevada will run entirely on renewable energy sources. The rooftop solar array planned for the site is expected to be the largest such site installation in the world.

Recycle, reuse

To avoid the energy expenditure required for the primary production of materials and reduce end-of-life waste, carmakers are turning to the use of recycled materials. In Japan, Nissan melts down used aluminium wheels at its Yokohama plant, for example, and uses the metal to produce components for new vehicles. It has also developed a process for the recycling of bumpers damaged in accidents. The broken parts are collected by dealerships and ground down into pellets that can be used in the manufacture of new parts. Automotive players are also exploiting external sources of recycled materials. Used plastic bottles, for example, can be transformed into polyester fibres for interior trim or acoustic insulation panels.

Grinding or melting down used parts still consumes energy, of course, as does transforming that material back into a usable product. To avoid those inputs, the industry is ramping up its "remanufacturing" activities. Remanufacturing involves the collection of worn or damaged components from repair shops or vehicle dismantlers and overhauling those parts to "like-new" condition so they can be returned to the market. As well as making new parts for many major automotive OEMs, tier-one supplier GKN remanufactures more than 600,000 drive shafts every year at plants in France and Spain. The company says its process requires 80 percent less steel than the manufacture of a new component. It has even developed a process that collects and reprocesses excess grease from its OE production lines, then uses that material to lubricate remanufactured parts.

The role of logistics

Logistics operations have an important role to play in many aspects of the automotive industry's sustainability efforts. Recycling and remanufacturing activities require specialist logistics services for the collection and recovery of input materials or the return of used "cores" for reprocessing, for example. Logistics activities also make up a significant part of the overall environmental footprint of automotive operations. BMW estimates that its logistics operations generate 1.4 million tons of carbon every year, roughly equalling the total direct and indirect emissions generated by the company's own facilities and employees.

Transport technology has a role to play in the reduction of logistics-related emissions. Consultancy McKinsey predicts that trucks using electric powertrains will soon be cost competitive with their diesel counterparts. It thinks that some segments, especially the light- and medium-duty vehicles often used in aftermarket part delivery or collection operations, will see significant adoption by 2030.

THROUGH THE ROOF: The rooftop solar array planned for Tesla's Gigafactory in the U.S. state of Nevada is expected to be the largest installation of its kind in the world.

Leading carmakers are also working closely with logistics providers – including DHL – to tackle the environmental footprint of their logistics activities. They are capturing improvements in numerous ways. Sharing transport assets or warehouse facilities can drive up utilization, reduce driving distances and cut empty miles. Returnable containers reduce or eliminate packaging waste and often provide improved protection for components. Collapsible designs, such as DHL’s IsoBin, allow more empty containers to fit into a truck or shipping container, improving the overall efficiency of the transport loop.

Multimodal supply chains are helping companies to use more efficient options for particular route segments. Often these strategies can save time and money while simultaneously reducing emissions. Moving loads away from ports along inland waterways can be cheaper and more energy efficient than making the same journeys by truck, and is a useful way to avoid congested roads and loading facilities. Shipping a container load of parts from China to Europe by rail generates 3.6 metric tons of carbon, compared with more than 90 metric tons if the same load has to travel by air. Rail also generates significantly lower emissions of hydrocarbons, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides than road, sea or air travel.

SHIFTING GEAR: Old components from any vehicle - including forklifts - can be remanufactured to make them "like new."

Smart warehouse design can simultaneously reduce operating costs and environmental impact. LED lighting, efficient glazing and optimized heating can significantly cut the energy required to run a facility. Warehouse roof space is often ideally suited for solar panel installations that can generate electricity or hot water for the facility. Larger warehouse installations are increasingly making use of combined heat and power (CHP) installations that use the waste heat from on-site electricity generation for space heating. Critically, such investments often offer a rapid financial return alongside their environmental benefits. The payback for large rooftop photovoltaic installations can still be as much as 15 years, but energy efficiency measures usually recoup initial costs in five years or less.

A long road ahead

Unlike the switch to electric mobility, the zero-emission automotive value chain won't be achieved by a single technological shift. Car companies and suppliers will have to fight a battle on multiple fronts, with changes that touch every aspect of their operations, from product design and sourcing strategies to infrastructure investments and business models.

This is a challenge that plays to the industry's strengths, however. Automotive companies are used to the precise measurement and management of operational performance. Their philosophy of continuous adaptation and improvement is based on the relentless identification and elimination of waste. The lean manufacturing philosophy that powered the sector's dramatic quality and productivity improvements in recent decades has equipped it with skills and capabilities that are now being used to build a cleaner industry. —  Jonathan Ward

Published: November 2017

Images: Christoph Busse/BMW; Sean Gallup/Getty Images; Tesla/dpa; CTK Photo/Imago