Mazda’s approach to sustainability

Reading “Mazda SkyActiv is a novel approach to fuel efficiency; will it work?” over at Autoblog Green got me thinking. The article outlines how Mazda is eschewing hybrid and EV technologies (in the short term) to instead focus on light-weighting and efficiency.

It’s an interesting approach. I’ve written before about the “hyper car” concept outlined in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Whereas the Lotus vehicle I was responding to in that post was just a concept, it’s interesting to see a mainstream brand like Mazda (which seems to be a bit more prominent in the Australian market than the US based on the Autoblog Green article) taking this approach to market. (It’s interesting to note that Audi have also announced a carbon-fibre project using an Australian partner.)

Autoblog Green ask if it will work — indeed, will it sell more cars. I think it’s actually a reasonably smart approach. The jury is still out on EVs and hybrids and the specific technologies that might “win” the race (including hydrogen fuel cells). With EVs taking a little while to gain traction in the market, there is a strong argument to holding off significant R&D expenditure in this area until the market is more mature.

(That said, I still think that electric vehicles will end up being the technology of choice, regardless of power source. And it is definitely important that some manufacturers lead the way, as Tesla and Nissan, among others, are doing.)

Regardless of which technology gets up, the measures that Mazda is exploring will all be relevant. And in the short term, with consumer uncertainty (and the high relative up-front cost of hybrid and EV vehicles), focusing efforts in this area can only provide benefits to the Mazda brand. That is to say, for those customers that aren’t ready to make the switch to EV/hybrid, the fuel efficiency benefits would likely be of appeal (and therefore to have an impact on sales). But it won’t be long before Mazda will need to start investing more heavily in alternative fuel/power train technologies. I’m sure, however, that they are keeping a close eye on developments and will be ready once a dominant approach appears. Definitely one worth watching…

Old ideas painted new

Over the past few years I’ve been following the automotive industry, especially in relation to electric cars and efficiency improvements.  I have had a long time love of cars from an aesthetic/design perspective, probably rooted in the many drawings and lego vehicles I made when I was a kid.

Perhaps it was watching Who Killed the Electric Car, the talk of biofuels (and their positive and negative aspects) and hydrogen (with many questions relating to hype vs. reality) – I’m not sure which, but something clicked over the past few years that really opened my eyes to just how little innovation had actually been happening in the space, and I suppose piqued my interest from a sustainability perspective.  I also think that the industry is somewhat of a bellweather for the broader market shift to sustainable technologies.

I was interested to note that this week Lotus Engineering have unveiled a concept car design, based on the Toyota Venza, that achieved a 30% weight reduction – a critical component of efficiency – over the Toyota design.

2020 Toyota Venza concept by Lotus Engineering reports:

With a combination of lightweight materials and efficient design, Lotus claims to have achieved a 38 per cent reduction in vehicle mass, excluding the powertrain, for only a three per cent increase in component costs.

In other words, the Venza’s 1290kg mass was reduced to just 800kg on the Lotus-engineered 2020 concept.

… The company’s findings were released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation and show how significant reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be achieved for a regular mass-market vehicle through means other than the powertrain.

(egmCarTech has published an article of their own exploring the concept with further pictures.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the excellent book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins.  In the chapter entitled Reinventing the Wheels the authors outline how lighter materials, better aerodynamics and alternative drive-trains (hybrid-electric) can radically improve the efficiency of cars.  They call this concept the “Hypercar”, and note:

Detroit has long focused on improving the efficiency of the drive-line – the fraction of the fuel’s energy that’s converted by the engine into torque and then transmitted by the drivetrain to the wheels.  But there is an even better approach.  The Hypercar concept attacks the problem from the other end, by reducing the amount of power that is needed at the wheels in the first place.

They go on to outline how efficient use of more expensive but lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials can reduce weight and manufacturing complexity with only mild increases in costs while at the same time reducing the resource intensity (how many resources are required in energy, labour and natural resources) of the car.  Lotus’s concept seems to be taking this approach directly:

Still committed to founder Colin Chapman’s ethos of “performance through light weight”, Lotus Engineering says the 2020 vehicle architecture uses a mix of stronger and lighter weight materials, a high degree of component integration and advanced joining and assembly techniques.

Whereas the benchmark Venza’s body-in-white contained more than 400 parts, the 2020 model reduced that number to 211.

Body materials in the Venza were 100 per cent steel, while the 2020 concept uses 37 per cent aluminium, 30 per cent magnesium, 21 per cent composites and seven per cent high-strength steel – which Lotus says reduces the structure mass by 42 per cent, from 382kg to 221kg.

This is great news, and fantastic that Lotus is taking the initiative.  It’s noteworthy, I think, that Lotus are heavily involved in Tesla Motors‘ development.  However, I can’t help but have a twinge of disappointment that it’s taken over 10 years since Natural Capitalism was written (it was first published in 1999) for these techniques to be seriously considered, for a 2017 horizon.

Perhaps the technology and costs are only just starting to catch up to the vision, but I suspect it has more to do with the recent spur of activity in the automotive industry around electric vehicles that have resulted in this approach being applied.

Hopefully more of the ideas in the book start to come to fruition in the same way soon…