The Move to a Greener Automotive Future

The automotive industry is transitioning with speed towards a greener future, fuelled by leading manufacturers investing heavily in electrification and hybrid technologies. At the consumer level, the conversation is slightly different but just as energetic. People are excited about the concept of a more environmentally friendly solution to personal transport, one that has the potential to give us everything we need without having the earth pay the price.

This is certainly reflected in the actions of governments around the world and particularly in Europe. Norway recorded a significant milestone in 2020. For the first time, the sale of electric cars outnumbered the sale of conventional petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles. In fact, fully electric vehicle sales accounted for 54% of total new car sales in 2020. What is perhaps even more significant is that when including hybrid vehicles, the total share for fully or partially electric vehicles reached 83%. In just five years, the market share of petrol and diesel car sales in Norway has swung from 71% to just 17%1.

It is no secret that Norway’s government is offering large incentives to change consumer habits. The established target is that every new vehicle sold has zero-emissions by 2025. The figures for 2020 put Norway ahead of its own schedule for hitting the target. In contrast, the UK government is taking a slightly different approach, by banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by the end of 20302.

In the US, the governor of the state of California is trying to introduce a mandate that would ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles in the state, from 2035. While Californians would be allowed to keep using existing vehicles running on petrol or diesel, all new cars and passenger trucks would need to be zero-emission. Of course, zero-emission doesn’t necessarily mean the vehicle will need to be electric, but it is difficult to see how else it could be achieved.

These lines in the sand, drawn by Norway, the UK, and others, give automotive manufacturers targets of their own to hit. There is clearly a growing customer base for greener vehicles, but just how the industry will meet that demand by 2030 is not so clear. The findings of a recent survey3, commissioned by Molex and conducted by Dimensional Research, asked a cross-section of leaders in automotive OEMs, Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers what they believed we could expect from vehicles by 20303.

The definitive results point to technical innovation as key, and at the top of the list are electrification and connectivity. This will lead to increased autonomy over time and, just as importantly, a reduction in range anxiety. The majority, 94% of respondents, felt cars in 2030 will include some level of autonomy and a majority of 66% believe it will primarily be included to increase road safety. Almost all – 97% of respondents – believed that range anxiety will be solved by 2030, primarily through improved battery technology and charging infrastructures (63%), but also through consumer acceptance of the technology’s limitations (34%).

The forces behind these innovations are coming from several directions. Most notable is customer demand, which includes increased awareness and desire for sustainability. The respondents also recognized that government regulation is also influencing the way OEMs are innovating.

Support for the ‘three zeros’ is also quite clear: zero emissions, zero accidents, and zero waste. The car of 2030 is expected to deliver a lot without adding anything, but the survey did identify that this will likely lead to consumers incurring a higher selling price.

The challenges that need to be addressed

Looking at the first of these goals, zero emissions means not only shifting to an all-electric drivetrain but also ensuring that the energy used to generate the electricity needed is also clean. This depends on two technology innovations, the battery and the way renewable energy is captured. There are exciting developments in both of these areas.

In terms of the battery technology, the predominant material used today is Lithium Ion. This has been adopted out of convenience, rather than conservation. Lithium Ion is not really considered to be a green technology, so to meet the spirit of greener driving the industry also needs to transition towards a greener way of storing energy. Today, the most promising technology is probably hydrogen fuel cells; we cannot expect to see these displacing Li-Ion batteries by 2030, but perhaps in the longer term they will.

Solar technology is also advancing and many exciting research projects show how photovoltaic (PV) cells can be integrated into the vehicle’s body panels. Turning every surface into a highly efficient PV cell would mean the vehicle is constantly being charged when it is exposed to daylight. This could alleviate the pressure on the charging infrastructure, as well as pave the way towards a truly zero emission solution. Again, this is not likely to be mainstream by 2030, but it is on the roadmap.

There are also challenges involved with achieving the second goal of zero accidents, although there is a much higher possibility of reaching this by 2030. The critical technical innovation needed here is the software that powers and controls the vehicle’s systems. The industry has already achieved a great deal here with the development of ADAS and autonomous driving. While there are more challenges ahead, achieving zero accidents by 2030 is increasingly possible.

The third goal, zero waste, is perhaps slightly more challenging, but not impossible. As a long-term goal, achieving zero waste will require technical innovation in the materials used. Primarily, this will impact the industry’s use of plastic. As a material, plastic is incredibly cost-effective, and it also meets global safety standards. However, this also makes it difficult to recycle and to replace. This is perhaps the biggest technical challenge the industry faces and there seems to be little chance of achieving zero waste in the industry by 2030.

As with most things, some compromise may be needed. One may be to make vehicles last longer. The move from mechanical to electrical drivetrains is a significant step in the right direction in this respect, as an electric motor is much more durable than a mechanical engine. The challenge here may actually be in the other systems, most notably the battery. An electric drivetrain may easily last 20 years or more, but currently, a Li-Ion battery is unlikely to be serviceable beyond seven years.

Are we there yet?

Automotive OEMs have a difficult commercial proposition, they must continue to innovate and move towards the full electric paradigm to support a greener motoring future, while still observing the economics of the business. Because of this, technology companies are emerging and becoming leaders in a field in which they are relative newcomers. Apple and Google and others are not traditional OEMs, which is proving to be an advantage because they are not encumbered by legacy approaches.

However, by 2030 there may be new challenges facing the industry. As they meet and overcome the challenges outlined here, we can expect new ones to emerge. This may lead to an entirely new type of automotive OEM rising to the top, which combines the agility and forward-thinking bent of a technology company with the experience and scale of a traditional OEM.

Between now and 2030, we can expect the current manufacturers to rapidly transition through the hybrid model to full electric. While hybrids are a good compromise that eases migration, they are not hugely efficient and so cannot meet the demands of green goals in the long term.

Ultimately, while technological innovation is going to enable a greener automotive future, we believe the will of political leaders will play a critical role in dictating the rate of change. By 2030 we can expect to see more fully electric vehicles on the market and, in many regions, the disappearance of conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. We can also anticipate a much greener driving experience that is also safer for all road users.

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Group Product Manager