World Intellectual Property Day 2020 – Innovate for a Green Future

The search for eco-friendly materials in the automobile industry

By John Zarocostas, freelance journalist

The automobile industry – one of the world's biggest industries – is at the epicenter of intensified global efforts to find eco-friendly materials to help cap and reduce high levels of harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions amid the deepening climate crisis. Road transportation's role as a major polluter adds urgency to the need for the industry to come up with sustainable solutions. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which oversees the authoritative World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicles Regulations (WP 29), the sector is responsible for 18 percent of global GHG emissions, with fossil fuels accounting for 96 percent of energy consumption in road transportation.

The automobile sector is one of the world’s biggest industries and is at the heart of intensified global efforts to find eco-friendly materials to help cap and reduce high levels of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: geepblue4you / GettyImages)

Guido Gielen, Technical Director, International Automobile Federation*& (FIA)-Region1, based in Brussels, and Charles D. Uthus, Vice President for International Policy at the American Automotive Policy Council (AAPC)**, discuss industry initiatives and technological developments, trends and challenges on both sides of the Atlantic to decarbonize road transport.

Guido Gielen, Technical Director, International Automobile Federation & (FIA)-Region 1, offers his views on the trends and challenges associated with improving the carbon footprint of road transport.

What can be done to make transport more eco-friendly?

Personally, I believe in the potential of light-weighting vehicles and, in parallel, electrifying propulsion, to reduce energy consumption, GHG and pollutant emissions. Reducing vehicle mass can help lower a vehicle’s rolling resistance significantly. So far, manufacturers seem to have underestimated the environmental dividends that more sustainable vehicle design can offer. But light-weighting alone is not enough. That is why FIA favors the application of technology neutral solutions, a broad range of powertrain technologies to achieve environmental goals and, of course, higher levels of safety, on which we cannot compromise.

What new materials are emerging for light-weighting vehicle frames?

Many types of materials can help reduce vehicle mass and are strong enough to meet safety requirements. For example, high-strength steel is promising but aluminum, and some plastics, can also help lightweight vehicles further. But there's no silver bullet for materials. Manufacturers have the knowledge to design and produce innovative, eco-friendly vehicles, but lack the market and legislative incentives to apply this know how in high-series production and at prices consumers can afford.

One concern with the battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) that are coming on stream is the weight of the electric motor, correct?

Vehicle mass has been growing for decades. Today, an average vehicle with electrified propulsion weighs between 200 and 300 kilograms more than a similar variant equipped with a combustion engine only. Some claim that this higher mass is not problematic because the EV’s battery management system allows recuperation of a lot of energy during decelerations. In general, however, we favor technology neutral solutions and believe that all propulsion units – electrified and internal combustion propulsion vehicles – can benefit from light-weighting.

The auto sector invests huge amounts in R&D. What areas within the sector are attracting R&D money?

Several areas are driving R&D investment in the auto sector. Requirements around GHGs and anti-pollution are focusing efforts to make vehicles more sustainable. Another huge R&D focus is access to the data generated by connected vehicles and their automation as well as (cyber) security. Everyone is interested in obtaining and accessing data on a vehicle’s functions directly. Unfortunately, consumers are often not aware of what happens to all the data generated when they drive. One of our studies showed that a great deal of data was transmitted directly from the vehicle to the manufacturer's server without the consumer’s knowledge. Such data include the number of times a driver moves her chair back and forth or the length of time a driver uses a given driving mode. Although now, with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) people are looking more critically at the data that are transmitted to the manufacturer.

Anti-pollution requirements are driving efforts to make vehicles more sustainable. (Photo: milehightraveler / GettyImages)

Do these data help make vehicles safer?

Yes. If the data are made anonymous and are available to authorized, independent service providers like our Mobility Clubs, they can contribute to safer and cleaner vehicles. Higher levels of automation and advanced driver assist safety systems can help make vehicles safer. But more needs to be done to better communicate the benefits of these safety features to users and society. In this context, access to vehicle data is paramount.

And when autonomous vehicles (AVs) hit the streets, how critical will data and data protection be?

They will be extremely important. Today, for the connected cars that are already on the road, data security, in terms of both safety and environmental protection, is critical. Security means safeguarding the integrity of data and vehicle functions. Vehicle manufacturers need to ensure state-of-the-art security levels over a vehicle’s lifetime; that’s what consumers need and expect to prevent vehicle manipulation and theft of personal data. Moreover, it is not acceptable that the vehicle manufacturer or network operator determine when a vehicle needs to be decommissioned, by, for example, deciding that  it is no longer economically interesting to provide security updates. Access to such updates is a fundamental right for consumers that needs to be protected by law.

Cybersecurity – to prevent hackers from remotely manipulating vehicles and stealing data – is a new concern for the auto industry, and is being discussed in-depth at the UNECE, where new regulations on cybersecurity and over-the-air software updates will be adopted shortly. These are very important issues for the industry and citizens worldwide. However, as we have seen in other security critical sectors beyond the auto industry for some years, a high level of security and access to in-vehicle data and functions are not mutually exclusive.

A lot of research and development is also going into cybersecurity and issues relating to access to the data generated by connected vehicles and their automation. (Photo: IGphotography / GettyImages)

How important is intellectual property (IP) protection, and patents in particular, in spurring innovation in the auto sector?

IP is very important, but there is also a lot of innovation that only happens when this knowledge and know-how is leveraged and made available to Mobility Clubs and other independent operators to build on. That’s why we favor direct access to vehicle data and functions for authorized, independent service providers.

Intellectual property in the auto industry is now more important than ever […]. And its importance will grow as we move rapidly toward developing fully autonomous vehicles.

Charles D. Uthus, Vice President for International Policy, AACP

In other words, open-source collaboration?

Yes, but in a controlled and regulated way.

With EVs, how important is the source of energy that is used for re-charging?

It’s an extremely important consideration. For our Club experts, we developed a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool that looks at materials and energy used across a vehicle’s lifecycle – from conception to end-of-life – and even with respect to re-use of the vehicle or its components (e.g. propulsion battery). The latter will become increasingly important. However, the further upstream one goes in a vehicle’s lifecycle – to measure the energy consumed to mine the raw materials used to produce a vehicle, and the vehicle production process itself – it is, at present, only possible to make very rough estimates. A publicly available energy bill for sourcing materials and building vehicles would allow for more precise estimates.

Are the more ambitious targets set by the European Union to reduce GHG emissions (following the landmark 2016 Paris Agreement to combat climate change) forcing the sector to be ahead of the curve?

Yes, and it’s critical that it does. In addition to the big data challenges, the industry has to reduce emissions for all new types of vehicles. And on top of the need to meet fleet average GHG targets, the industry has to minimize the energy consumption and emissions of individual vehicles. Euro 7 Air Pollution Regulations are in preparation and may be applied by mid-2020. Some manufacturers will find it hard to attain fleet emissions targets, but if they don’t, they will face high penalties, in the EU at least.

Policies aimed at reducing CO2 already have a big impact on the technologies needed in markets where these regulations are in place. They have a profound effect on the vehicle, its size, weight and its power.

Charles D. Uthus, Vice President for International Policy, AACP

FIA and its Mobility Clubs are participating in Green NCAP, an independent test program that rates the environmental performance of new vehicles. This will provide consumers with much better information regarding low tailpipe emissions and best possible energy efficiency to make an informed purchasing decision. The hope is that the program will provide the industry with the necessary demand-side incentives and guidance to perform better in terms of ensuring that the design and real-world effectiveness of their products meet challenging Green NCAP environmental targets.

Charles D. Uthus, Vice President for International Policy, American Automotive Policy Council (AAPC), shares his views on industry initiatives and technological developments in the United States to reduce carbon emissions from road transport.

What are some cutting-edge initiatives in the search for eco-friendly materials in the US automobile sector?

In the United States, the national labs are playing an important role in finding alternatives to the rare-earth elements, such as cobalt, that are used in the batteries of electric vehicles (EVs). By definition, these elements are uncommon and limited in terms of their availability, making it challenging to find adequate and dependable sources of them.

What about new materials for making the frames of vehicles lighter. Has there been any progress on that front?

In the United States and around the world, there has been a big and steady move from the use of steel to aluminum. There's also a move to use special steels, which are lighter and stronger.

According to AAPC research, the global automobile sector pumps around USD 115 billion per year into R&D, or around USD 1,300 per vehicle. Is this trend continuing?

Recognizing the global trend toward the electrification of the automobile powertrain, US automakers are pouring a lot of their R&D investment into those technologies. Historically, many breakthrough developments happen in the United States but often are monetized elsewhere. For example, the Prius Nickel Metal-Ion battery was developed by the Argonne National Labs in the United States and was taken up by Toyota. Many advanced technologies used today, like Lithium-Ion batteries were first developed in US national labs. Often, when you trace the source of a technology back to patents and the licensing of them, much of the basic science for these technologies was developed by the US Government or US industry.

How important are patents in enhancing innovation?

IP in the auto industry is now more important than ever, especially given the major transition from internal combustion engines to electric powertrains and the move towards autonomous technologies, such as braking, steering and lane-keeping. Its importance will grow as we move rapidly toward developing fully autonomous vehicles.

Billions are being spent in the United States, particularly in Silicon Valley, to bring vehicles up to the standards that will be necessary. A lot of that investment is being made because of the synergies created in Silicon Valley. Many European, Japanese and Korean automakers are also investing in Silicon Valley to advance their technologies in that area. It has become the center for that kind of activity.

How long before we see fully autonomous vehicles on the roads?

There's a lot of optimism, but we need to be cautious here. The reality is that the further down the autonomous road you go, the more difficulties and challenges you encounter. Each step you take becomes ever more challenging. In the early stages, such as automated braking and lane-keeping, it’s much easier than when these technologies are advanced and coordinated into full autonomy. Actually creating a fully autonomous vehicle is a much bigger leap than people realize.

In addition to big data challenges, the auto industry has to reduce emissions for all new types of vehicles. (Photo: KeremYucel / GettyImages)

What about R&D in cleaner fuel sources such as electricity, hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, and others?

We need to look at all these technologies as a combined and complementary group of solutions to a challenging problem, namely to increase the energy efficiency of the automobile. No single technology is going to be a silver bullet, and depending on the market, and the area of the world, some technologies may make more sense than others.

And in the US market, what is the favorite new fuel system?

Right now, the Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) is taking center stage. An example is the Chevy Bolt – which reflects the large investment by GM in electrification technology. But at a future date, fuel cell technology or other fuel alternatives may take the lead. It's really important for governments to keep a technology-neutral approach because you can't tell what's going to be the most effective technology or solution in the future. The US Government has been very good at keeping a neutral approach in the way it promotes these technologies.

What about carbon tax linked to emission levels that have come in Europe, and elsewhere. How is that likely to affect automakers?

Policies aimed at reducing CO2 already have a big impact on the technologies needed in markets where these regulations are in place. They have a profound effect on the vehicle, its size, weight and its power. Our member companies are global automakers; they operate in around 130 markets. So we have to meet the standards governments require, and to do that, we need a mix of vehicles built around the different technologies required to accomplish that.

Is the new Life Cycle Assessment changing perceptions?

My personal view is that people rarely pay attention to how vehicles are produced, or the amount of energy used in their lifecycle – from its inception to the recycling point. I don't think it's going to play much of a role, but I imagine some governments will pay more attention to the vehicles’ life cycle and will likely regulate it more going forward.

Cybersecurity is a new concern for the auto industry. (Photo: metamorworks / GettyImages)

Vehicle manufacturers need to ensure state-of-the-art security levels over a vehicle’s lifetime; that’s what consumers need and expect to prevent vehicle manipulation and theft of personal data.

Guido Gielen, Technical Director, International Automobile Federation (FIA)-Region 1

How much of an issue is the type of energy used to recharge an EV?

In terms of environmental impact, it makes a huge difference if the energy source for powering an EV comes from a coal-fired power plant or if it comes from wind, solar or even nuclear power. If the policy goal is to reduce CO2, simply replacing the emissions from a vehicle with that from of a coal-fired plant will do little to meet that policy goal.


*The FIA, headquartered in Paris, is the governing body for world motor sport and the federation of the world’s leading monitoring organizations and promotes safe and sustainable mobility. The FIA Region 1 office, based in Brussels, is a consumer body comprising 104 Mobility Clubs that represent over 36 million members from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

**The American Automotive Policy Council (AAPC) is a Washington-based umbrella group that represents the public policy interests of the big three US automakers, namely, FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Company.