Sustainability enters the fast lane at the Frankfurt Automobile Show

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

As already earlier this year seen in Geneva and New York, sustainability is more important to the automobile industry than ever before, and it is a continuing trend. Not that that is going to save us, though.

At the 64th “Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung” in Frankfurt, Germany's annual auto extravaganza, nearly all of the significant vehicles revealed have a sustainability story to tell.

Small (and light) is beautiful in the new automobile market

Sustainability is the dominant theme in the auto industry of today because of aggressive legislation that targets manufacturer-average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025 in the U.S. and an equivalent of 57.6 mpg in Europe by 2020.

But to meet new regulations, automakers have to first satisfy the laws of physics. Moving more mass takes more energy, which consumes more fuel. After decades during which car model became heavier with each generation, we're finally seeing the trend reverse. The new Porsche 911, for example, is 100 pounds lighter than its predecessor while Daimler's Smart Forvision concept – a hint at the

next-generation iconic city car – features extensive use of weight-saving plastics, including what partner BASF calls “the first all-plastic wheel suitable for high-volume production.”

The stunning i3 and i8 concepts from BMW preview the production cars that will arrive in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Aside from their EV credentials, both vehicles feature weight-slashing carbon fiber as replacements for the steel used in conventional vehicles.

The Audi A2 concept follows a similar theme but hints at less carbon fiber and more aluminum, with a minimalist design direction compared to the curves of the BMWs.

Even Land Rover, previewing the 2015 replacement for its venerable Defender (which can easily trace its routes to the 1948 original) showed a DC100 concept that features “a lightweight, mixed-alloy platform” with “cutting-edge, sustainable, hi-tech materials taken from aerospace industries.” it is suggested that this may drop more than 1,000 pounds; critical to meeting fuel-economy targets.

Beyond the news on direct weight-saving measures, some of the most interesting and well-received vehicles at the show have the common virtue of small size, showing the direction in which the overall industry is headed.

Also on display at Frankfurt were a number of “urban mobility concepts” vehicles that combine the light weight and efficiency of a motorcycle with the all-weather capability and packaging of a car. Audi, Opel, and Volkswagen each showed various takes on this sub-1,000-pound vehicle segment, but none is immediately slated for production.

Meeting the significant sustainability challenges for personal mobility will require a combination of engineering solutions like weight reduction and light weight construction per se (maybe the Trabant was an idea before its time?), electric drive, and integrating technologies to improve the transportation system overall. There isn't a single silver-bullet solution.

Often overlooked, however, is driver demand. We need to want a reason to move from our bigger vehicles to smaller, more efficient ones. Fuel prices are one factor in that equation, but the desirability of smaller cars is another. The exhibition in Frankfurt shows that the smaller cars coming soon to Europe (and, in some cases, the U.S. as well) are very desirable indeed.

In using plastics, however, in order to reduce weight automakers do seem to be putting the horse before the cart, especially if those plastics rely on oil for manufacture.

Talking of the animal and the cart; it is that that we must be considering going back to as, in due course, and this is something that be better face and the bullet that we better bite, petroleum products will be too expensive for the ordinary person.

In addition to that we will. Have to reconsider – as many already are doping – human-powered vehicles for personal transportation and also for business use. The motorcar is on its last legs and with it the motor industry. This is a fact, however, that the governments are not prepared to acknowledge, at least not publicly.

Electric vehicles and hybrids are NOT the transportation future. They will not, regardless what claims to the contrary are, play any part in it.

© 2011