Engineering the ‘Sustainability Thing’

Sustainable and sustainability are words that are fast becoming industry vernacular. They’re woven into executive speeches, press releases, marketing, and engineers’ messaging. That’s because a gospel of sustainable practices is spreading fast among the leading automotive OEMs and their supply base. And as such a paradigm-setting trend deserves, we’re focusing on it in this month’s Automotive Engineering.

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” is one definition of the term. In my view, sustainability is analogous to efficiency – of the product, of manufacturing and of human resources — the equitable treatment of employees and the community. At its heart is a circular economy that’s not just about EVs and climate change.

Sustainability as an industry driver has been growing since the Clean Air Act and the lean-design

focus of the 1970s-1980s. Then came the global focus on climate change. The UN’s pact to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5°C by 2050 requires a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 compared to 2019 levels. The call to action kindled by government policy now is a business process.

Efforts thus far are reflected in the many 2022 Sustainability Reports published by OEMs and Tier 1s that have flooded my inbox. One report, from Adient clearly charts how the global seating supplier has integrated sustainable processes across its enterprise. As a result, Adient has reduced emissions and waste, saved cost, and created an operational culture. VP of engineering Mike Maddelein gets into detail in our feature on page 32. He points out that the entire supply chain is needed for sustainability to affect real emissions reduction.

The OEMs and Tier 1s currently are nudging their sub-tier vendors to get with the program. Sooner or later, Tier 2, 3, and 4 suppliers will be expected to follow the same Scope 3 and other guidance that vehicle makers expect of their Tier 1s. The Scope protocol is not yet law. Some expect it eventually will be as regulators tighten the emission screws going forward.

Engineers ask me if “the sustainability thing is really just green-washing BS,” as one put it. No, it’s the real deal. As Maddelein noted, sustainable activities now are “what we all just do.” Industry-wide, roughly $2 trillion is invested annually in existing technologies like batteries and renewable power. These address at least half of GHG emissions. To reach net-zero by 2050, however, the world will need to commit an additional $3.5 to $5 trillion per year, according to BloombergNEF and McKinsey estimates. It’s a heavy cost burden that’s likely to get heavier.

The U.S. EPA’s recently proposed tailpipe standards hope to spark a 60% rise in EV sales in the next nine years. That target won’t be met if vehicle prices are not reduced significantly. How much cost can engineers and suppliers wring out of batteries in the next two product cycles, so that today’s $60,000 average retail price of EVs drops to levels that mainstream buyers can afford?

Engineers solve problems. But as I’ve noted on this page, there is no ‘silver bullet’ in the mobility journey. Reaching a sustainable future requires multi-modal solutions. That includes EVs but also hybrids. ‘Green’ fuels, including biofuels and synthetics. Hydrogen. Gen-3 nuclear reactors on the grid side and in steelmaking. Innovation! Carbon capture is heretical to EV cultists — but what solution other than EVs isn’t heretical to them? It is one option for mitigating the elephant in the room: the estimated 1 billion existing ICE-powered vehicles in the world.

Forecasters say perhaps 100 million more new vehicles, most with IC engines, will enter the world’s streets this century. No button exists to simply make them disappear, to be replaced by EVs. The road to the sustainable future must support livelihoods and budgets in every corner of the world. Yet when the truly global OEMs argue this point, they get blasted by the NGO eco-lawyers who cluelessly demand finger-snap solutions.

The sustainable future is full of unknowns. Battery supply. Mineral sourcing. Mining risks. Human rights and safety. A fragile, Balkanized U.S. energy grid. Geopolitics. Wars and rumors of war. Cost. Natural resource issues such as water use in semiconductor manufacturing and lithium processing. Even truly “recyclable” plastic remains an unfulfilled promise in many cases.

For Sustainability to be industry’s true North Star, leaders who preach the EV gospel should walk the walk. A recent 1,497-mile flight by Tesla’s CEO from Austin, Texas, to Oakland, Calif., consumed nearly 10,000 pounds of jet fuel and emitted 15 tons of CO2, according to an online report.

SAE itself is grappling with its own sustainable transition. Pride in the new EV charging station at SAE’s Pittsburgh-area headquarters is tempered by the regional power utility’s main sources of fuel to generate electricity: natural gas and “scrubbed” coal.