Imagine, you have just bought that new Bentley coupé you have been dreaming of all these years. You open the door for the first time, settle down in the driver's seat and even before the key is in the ignition you just can't resist running your fingers over that super-smooth and supple stitched leather.
Only that seat is not leather at all – or at least not leather as you know it. It is actually vegan leather, made not from the hide of any animal, but a new material formed from a mixture of fruit skins, seeds and stalks. This is not an environmental fantasy, but an actual product in development now and potentially one small part of what could become the totally sustainable vehicle.
In fact, there are plenty of innovative companies experiment with a range of new automotive components that use recycled or plant-based organic materials to produce something that is lighter, less carbon intensive and more recyclable than the plastics and metals that make up most conventional vehicles.
Manufacturers could be using these materials right now. For example, some companies are offering suede-like fabrics manufactured from recycled plastic bottles and clothing. Some are making automotive carpets made from recycled fishing nets, or composites derived from the flax plant to replace plastics in dashboard consoles. Others are making seat structures out of sustainable cork, or floorpans and trims out of compressed sustainable rattan. These are the kinds of innovations that – if they reach the mass market and not just the luxury segment – could take sustainable mobility to a new level.
More efficient tyres
And there are more ways to cut tailpipe carbon emissions than just switching to electric power. Just consider the tyres,
The biggest part of the tyre efficiency equation is what is known as ‘rolling resistance', a measure of the energy it takes to turn the wheel on the road. Reduced rolling resistance has been one of the big successes of the drive to cut carbon emissions by increasing vehicle efficiency beyond the engine – Pirelli reports a 50 per cent improvement in tyre rolling resistance in recent years, which translates into fuel savings of up to 10 per cent.
Yet the biggest carbon-reducing efficiency improvements probably lie in weight reduction. Heavier cars use more fuel, and the average weight of cars has been increasing since the early 1980s due to additional safety features and an increase in the average size of vehicles. With the introduction of new electric models, weight is climbing further as large battery packs for cars can weigh over 500kg.
There are lightweight manufacturing materials that can cut this weight considerably and most of them have been around for a long time – materials such as aluminium, magnesium and carbon-fibre. The problem has always been cost: carbon-fibre, for example, has the benefit of being half the weight of standard grade automotive steel, but costs over five times as much.
But companies that dismiss these alternatives as too expensive should take note of the falling price of electricity. Where electricity is the biggest part of the production cost for lightweight materials (as is the case of aluminium, which is 40 per cent lighter than steel), it seems likely that the cost of what the industry calls ‘lightweighting' will fall.
According to the International Energy Agency, solar power is now the cheapest form of electric energy that has ever been produced. And, as such renewable energy sources take over from more expensive and polluting generation from fossil fuels like coal, lightweight manufacturing alternatives such as aluminium should get cheaper, too. According to the consultancy McKinsey, by 2030 lightweight materials could make up 67 per cent of what goes into building a car, up from 29 per cent today.
If that forecast is met it will be due to a combination of factors – falling production costs, more efficient and faster fabrication techniques for composites and carbon-fibre components, and emissions targets in the US and EU that make it cost-effective to invest in lightweighting. weight overall.
Reaching the goal of mobility that is efficient and sustainable has been a long time coming. There have been lightweights before – a 1959 Mini weighed no more than a battery pack used today for electric cars – but without those total sustainability characteristics that are now becoming so desirable.
But now zero emissions, hyper-efficiency and vegan leather seats, if you want them, could be just around the corner. It will just take a bit more innovation from companies (and perhaps some rethinking of how carbon emissions targets actually work) to put it all in a car on a forecourt near you.