Car manufacturers are going green … but, is it green enough to survive?

Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management

ISSN: 1741-038X

Article publication date: 24 October 2008

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Nunes, B. (2008), "Car manufacturers are going green … but, is it green enough to survive?", Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, Vol. 19 No. 8. https://doi.org/10.1108/jmtm.2008.06819haa.001

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Car manufacturers are going green … but, is it green enough to survive?

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, Volume 19, Issue 8

I would like to invite you to take a look at the environmental and sustainability reports of the world’s major automobile companies. An easy and quick conclusion is that these companies are going green (you only need to read the report’s summary to think that!), but how green are they actually going? In this Editorial let me introduce a systemic view and discussion of the topic.

Green technologies and initiatives vary from automobile design (fuel, engine, materials, etc.), infrastructure (facilities), manufacturing processes (pressing, welding, painting, etc.), logistics and supply chain (efficient routes, packaging, environmental guidelines and selection criteria), end-of-life vehicles and parts (air bags, batteries, etc.), innovation using intelligent traffic systems, and other initiatives related to environmental protection, education programmes and philanthropy. This is quite comprehensive and impressive, is not it?

Nevertheless, the major automobile companies continue to be among the favourite targets of environmentalists and clean urban air campaigns, and consequently they are coming under stricter regulations – mainly for tailpipe emissions. One of the reasons is the implications of car use, accounting for 80 per cent of emissions and energy consumption during the life cycle of most vehicles. In addition to the pollution from vehicle use, traffic jams and car accidents continue to be part of the downside of a car culture. As the passenger car fleet increases in many cities, while the traffic infrastructure does not improve, the personal benefits of having a car as a mobility device reduces significantly. Are air pollution, traffic jams and accidents problems for city planners or strategic failures of car companies? Should blame be directed at automobile manufacturers for producing powerful cars that run at double the permitted speed limit or the irresponsible fast drivers? During rush hour we see most cars carrying only the driver and stuck in traffic jams; but can we realistically think that car sharing and other public cooperative schemes will substantially improve the situation?

It is impossible to separate sustainable production from sustainable consumption. The problems just described have already been discussed in papers and books related to sustainable mobility. Existing initiatives are important, but not sufficient. Even the Volkswagen Group’s sustainability report warns that improved efficiency will not be sufficient to mitigate engine emissions because economic globalisation will increase the demand for freight and personal mobility, mainly in developing countries. So, why are most of the companies still just making incremental changes and keeping the same technological paradigms such as internal combustion engines (ICEs), all-steel bodies and multi-purpose cars? Orsato and Wells (2007) explain how companies became locked into these paradigms and how they are now dependent on fossil fuels (and ICEs), price competition, mass production platforms, and therefore the predominant use of steel and production of multi-purpose vehicles. They argue that car manufacturers do not see themselves as personal mobility providers or even as propulsion systems innovators – therefore, their strategies are always around the existing technological paradigms.

Purists advocate that only zero-emission cars are the solution for air pollution in urban centres. However, this could still not be ideal because it depends on how the electricity or hydrogen to power the cars is generated. Even so, it is much easier to manage the emissions from a few power plants than from thousands of cars on the road. Also, ICE efficiency is around 50 per cent in most of the cars while in power plants this could more easily be increased or the wasted energy dissipated could be used in combined heat and power systems. Hence, it is likely that moving to zero emission cars could be beneficial for the overall emissions reduction if the whole fuel life cycle is considered.

It is clear that the environmental strategy of automobile manufacturers will play an essential role in their survival during the next decade. For instance, Renault-Nissan has already confirmed a deal with the Israeli Government to run a zero-emission fleet there, in a business model that resembles the contracts for mobile phones. The UAE Government intends to create Masdar – a “sustainable city” for 50,000 people close to Abu Dhabi – in which one of the main characteristics is that it will be car-free. So the question is, what strategy should automobile companies adopt if the Masdar initiative is pursued by other developing countries? In other words, what are they going to sell in car-free cities?

Breno Nunes

References

Orsato, R. and Wells, P. (2007), “The U-turn: the rise and demise of the automobile industry”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 15 Nos 11/12, pp. 994–1006