Are we doing enough to ensure our vehicles are environmentally sustainable?

A blog post by Philippa Oldham 

The last couple of decades have seen a revived interest in the development and design of our vehicles. This focus has been driven by their associated emissions both in terms of greenhouse gases and air quality. However, this attention has been on what comes out of the tailpipe rather than the total lifecycle emissions of the vehicle. By having a narrow directive it can drive consumer behaviour down the wrong path evident from the growth in diesel cars due their CO2 benefits over petrol cars.

With this in mind there has never been a more important opportunity to stop and reflect on this whole lifecycle sustainability agenda, before we potentially make the same mistake by pushing everyone down the road of electrification. We must explore the broader issues of whole lifecycle emissions within the transport sector and not just measure what comes out of the tailpipe.

Sustainability is a fundamental part of our survival not only for our automotive sector but for society itself as the scientific evidence shows that we steadily destroying our ecosystem. This degradation is well documented through models forecasting increases in migration, flooding, drought, famine and ultimately extinction of the natural world as we know it.

But is this something that as individuals we can stop or even reverse? More needs to be done by the engineering and scientific community to engage and inform the wider audience on challenges that we face globally, mobilising them to want to make a difference. However, time is of the essence if we want to halt the damage being caused. To make a significant impact we must start to join the dots by encompassing the whole system and not just what is seen as relevant to us.

One of our biggest challenges is that of our transport emissions. Global car count is currently around 1.2 billion and is projected to double by 2030. The UK’s latest figures show the transport sector as the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions at 26%. So is now the time for a holistic approach to emissions reduction set as a parallel objective?

For cities in all countries, the integrated and compact design of using public transport and mobility solutions is at the core of providing a foundation for a truly sustainable city. The electrification of vehicles in urban areas is one step to decarbonisation, but charging infrastructure remains relatively poor and is seemingly hindering market growth. The high infrastructure and R&D costs of adopting autonomous vehicles meanwhile, is also proving a difficult hurdle to overcome in the short term. But should our cities prioritise public transport encouraging the operators to embrace low carbon, flexible transport networks that support appropriate density of urban form, improve air quality and equitable access?

It is fundamental that we get the right metrics and develop a sound strategy that is underpinned by analysis based on robust data. Comparable methodology across the lifecycle would enable us to measure the impact of the way we manufacture our vehicles moved goods by tonnage, by distance, by volume and value. These metrics would need to include analysis of the societal impacts, which would include all external costs, including environmental and economic costs. This would help us to compare transport modes, with an aim to look at how we can maximise our existing capacity and make sure we join up investment opportunities. This should lead to the right regulation and taxation schemes being implemented to deliver a cleaner more sustainable environment.

To hear more about how the UK’s automotive plans to address some of these issues clear your diary on the 29th March 2018 and come along to the latest in the Future of Technology free event Tailpipe dreams – what is a sustainable vehicle? This event is held at the Royal Geographical Society in London.