There is a specter haunting the German car industry. Back in Silicon Valley, Apple, Google, Uber, Faraday and Tesla are planning a global offensive surrounding autonomous and electric cars. Will they disrupt this industrial pillar and triumph over VW, BMW and Daimler?
Is the German automobile industry ready for this revolution? Yes – but only if their executives are ready to think independently and not follow the hype. To quote Bill Gates’ favorite author and energy guru, Professor Vaclav Smil, “The Tesla is an utterly derivative overhyped toy for showoffs.”
The force of the future will be dematerialization
Today we are obsessed by automobile tailpipe emissions and autonomous driving. Those are small pieces in the automotive landscape mosaic and not the most important ones. Yet, they dominate the media and public perception. In our view, the force driving a revolution in automobiles over the next decade will be the dematerialization of automotive manufacturing coupled with large-scale implementation of crash avoidance systems.
Around two billion cars have been built over the last 115 years; and twice that number will be built over the next 35 to 40 years. The environmental and health effects will be enormous. Some think the solution is electric cars or other low- or zero-emission vehicles. The truth is, an 85 kWh electric SUV with a king-size-mattress-format battery weighing 2,400 kilos may not have a tailpipe, but it has an enormous impact on our environment and health. A far greater percentage of a car’s total emissions comes from the materials and energy needed to manufacture a car (mining, processing, manufacturing, and disposal), not the car’s operation.
How we make our cars is the bigger environmental issue
The conclusion from this is straightforward: how we make our cars is actually a bigger environmental issue than how we fuel our cars. We need to focus our innovation not just on automotive products, but equally on the process by which those products are made. Dematerialization – that is, reducing the materials and energy needed to build a car – is the only effective way forward. It will lead to far fewer emissions from both manufacturing and operation, much lower material and energy inputs in manufacturing, dramatically improved gas mileage, and lower wear on roads. It will also help reduce fatalities from car accidents: The U.S. National Traffic and Safety Commission’s research has shown that a reduction of 1,000 pounds in vehicle weight would lower traffic accident fatalities by 30 percent.
New technologies are helping our environment
Traditional automakers are held captive by the massive capital investments required to build cars using conventional methods. Every one of today’s car companies, from Toyota to Tesla, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in every car factory it has built. That means they must organize everything they do around generating a maximum return on that investment.
However, we now have a new technology base for industrial manufacturing. That base includes innovations such as 3D metal printing that German inventors and companies created and are rapidly driving forward. At Divergent 3D, we are focused on using this new technology base to radically dematerialize the design and manufacture of complex structures, such as automobiles. Our objective is to reduce the environmental damage cars cause by over 70 percent, lower capital costs for design and manufacturing 20 times or more, and dramatically accelerate innovation. A super-lightweight car built using this technology generates only a third of the total health and environmental damage of an 85 kWh electric car. We aim to drive that figure down even further. And it can be made locally and built to last. Ours is just one approach to the dematerialization process; there will be a number of others.
Stay open to new technologies
This is our humble and respectful message to the German car industry: Over the long term, focus on a life-cycle analysis that looks at total product impact on our planet, rather than simply tailpipe emissions. Within that life-cycle framework, experiment, test rapidly and innovate; be technology agnostic – be it related to drivetrains, electronics or manufacturing processes. Finally, always remember that when a technology becomes an ideology, we lose any chance of facing our challenges – including environmental degradation – in a rational and effective way. We are rooting for you to continue to lead, not follow, the hype. Build cars that use less material and energy while having greater functionality, affordability and Fahrvergnuegen. It is possible, and it starts with you!
This article was originally published by Xing in Germany.