Automobile industry: moving toward a sustainable future at walking pace


Source: oekom research AG

Latest study identifies challenges in the environmental and social areas

Munich, 19 September 2006 – At the IAA in Hanover, Germany, the world will be looking at developments and innovations in the automobile industry. While the main focus in the past has been on engine performance and vehicle function and design, the public is now also interested in how manufacturers are responding to demands for lower fuel consumption and emissions.

In a recent study, oekom research highlighted the activities of the world’s largest listed car manufacturers and evaluated their social and environmental performance on a scale from A+ (highest score) to D- (lowest score). The French manufacturer Renault came out on top in the passenger car sector with a score of B, followed by the two German companies BMW and Volkswagen (both with a score of B-). In the commercial vehicle sector, the Swedish company Volvo had the edge over its competitors.

Against a background of rising oil prices and increasing dependence on politically unstable oil-exporting countries, the issue of fuel consumption continues to gain in significance. oekom research’s analysis shows the extent to which the industry is able to offer appropriate solutions. The goal the industry has set for itself is to reduce the average fuel consumption for new passenger vehicles in Europe to 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres by 2009 at the latest. This is equivalent to an emission level of 140 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled. 'However, companies still have a considerable way to go before meeting this voluntary commitment to the EU, made in 1998, which would make an important contribution to climate protection,” stresses Maike Hiltner, senior analyst at oekom research. The industry rating makes it clear that the figures the companies have published so far still lie far above the target levels. 'According to our estimates, BMW for example currently has a fleet consumption of around 7.7 litres, while Honda’s stands at around seven litres. That corresponds to a carbon dioxide output of around 178 grammes for BMW and 170 grammes for Honda,” explains Hiltner. In a Europe-wide comparison, Renault, for example, with an average consumption in the EU-15 countries of around six litres (148 grammes of CO2), performed relatively well. The industry expert adds that these kinds of figures are difficult to obtain: 'Most manufacturers won’t supply any details.”

To actually achieve their climate protection goal by 2008, the European automobile industry would have to cut emissions by a quarter compared with 1995 levels. However, over the last ten years they have only succeeded in cutting them by about 13 per cent. In order to speed up the process, the EU Commission is now threatening to use legislation to force car manufacturers to improve climate protection. The US government is meanwhile also accepting the inevitable, if at a lower level: Following a tightening of previous regulations, American car manufacturers will have to reduce their fleet consumption in stages to an average of 9.75 litres per 100 km by 2011. This will affect above all the around 8.5 million off-road vehicles and pick-up trucks, some of which consume up to 30 litres.

The most economical passenger vehicle in the world is currently the 'Insight” hybrid model from the Japanese manufacturer Honda, with a consumption level of 2.8 litres per 100 kilometres. 'At the moment, hybrid systems are the most successful alternative drive systems on the market,” says Hiltner. Besides Honda, the other company which is particularly active in this market is Toyota with its 'Prius”. Hiltner praises the fact that, 'All the companies evaluated are now carrying out some kind of research into alternative drive systems.” According to the study, the industry’s research covers a broad spectrum - bio fuels, natural gas, electric and hybrid vehicles, hydrogen drives and fuel cells. The analyst reminds us that 'There is, however, still a huge step to take from research to mass production,” and goes on to explain that 'Such innovations in engine technology will have little long-term effect on climate protection, if cars continue to become ever faster and more luxurious, with their weight and consumption increasing simultaneously.” Also, alternative drive systems are still in their infancy where commercial vehicles are concerned. MAN and Volvo, for example, can at least point to prototypes, but 'To date, none of the companies evaluated has been able to come up with convincing engine solutions based on regenerative drives,” finds Till Jung, commercial vehicle sector analyst at oekom research. The analysts surmise that in the future, especially in the light of rising oil prices and simultaneously high fleet consumption levels, alternative concepts will become more and more important.

Consumers and the authorities will become increasingly sensitive to the issue of emissions. This can be seen in the plans in cities such as Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart for 'environment zones” from which vehicles with excessively high emissions will be banned. The fine dust particles in the exhaust gases of diesel engines have acquired a particular political resonance because of their harmful effects on health and the environment. The reaction of the commercial vehicle manufacturers to this problem is sobering, however: 'Most companies’ efforts do not extend beyond the minimum legal requirements,” is how Jung summarizes the study’s findings. Maike Hiltner adds that where passenger vehicles are concerned, almost all manufacturers of diesel vehicles now offer at least some models with particle filters. Audi is seen as the front runner, equipping all new diesel vehicles with particle filters as standard.

Summary: The capacity of individual companies to cope with future demands will essentially depend on how well they succeed in bridging the gap between conventional product requirements, such as performance, safety and comfort, on the one hand and environmental and social challenges on the other hand. It is becoming increasingly obvious, especially in the light of rising demand in the newly industrialized countries, that it cannot be sustainable for the automobile industry to continue with its present strategies.

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