Automakers Need to Keep Their Promises for a Cleaner Future

You and I are the key to that

Whether it’s a gas or electric vehicle, cars have a pretty substantial impact. During the transition to an electrified world, OEMs are making grand promises not only about the number of EVs they’ll introduce, but also how those vehicles will be built. The phrase “carbon-neutral” gets tossed around rather frequently, and it’ll be a far cleaner world if that happens. 

Earlier this week, automaker Polestar announced its first partners in its Polestar 0 Project. The automaker is working with suppliers like SSAB Steel and ZF to ensure that all aspects of a vehicle’s production are climate-neutral. It’s an important step, and while I’m sure Polestar has the best intentions, it and other automakers need to follow through on these plans. And as consumers, we need to make sure they’re keeping climate-based pacts with us.

Polestar 2 electric vehicle driving on a road between green fields

Polestar

Links in a Supply Chain

A vehicle isn’t built in a vacuum. While automakers build many of the parts of a car, truck, or SUV, most of the stuff that goes into a finished automobile is from somewhere else; suppliers are the backbone of the automotive industry. Companies like ZF and Bosch might not be household names like Ford or BMW, but without them, vehicles just wouldn’t get built. 

This is actually why there’s a shortage of cars right now. Suppliers either can’t build their individual parts or can’t get them delivered to the automaker’s factories quick enough. It’s all an intensely choreographed dance that requires parts to arrive at a factory at a specific time so they can be distributed exactly when needed. If you ever have a chance to tour an automobile factory, go for it. The timing of getting everything to a worker as they attach it to a vehicle is impressive.

But it also creates an odd issue. Automakers are promising carbon-neutral factories in the future. Volkswagen’s Zwickau factory is a good example of a plant that no longer uses fossil fuel to keep the machines running. But it’s just one part of a larger chain of facilities used to build a vehicle. It might be harder to pull off, but those suppliers need to start making sure they’re also cleaning up their act as much as possible. 

Power to the People

Batteries present their own special issues. First, there are the materials needed to build all the batteries we need for an EV future. That’s led to many of us learning that cobalt mining has been rife with human rights abuses. BMW, for its part, started sourcing cobalt for its battery suppliers; it put itself in the supply chain to make sure what goes in its vehicles is from trusted sources. 

The battery recycling issue has been one of the more prevalent issues. On that front, a former Tesla executive is working towards making sure the batteries we’re using today don’t become the disaster of tomorrow. Redwood Materials recently announced a battery recycling program in California with Volvo and Ford as its first partners. It’s early stages, but it’s a start, and hopefully, it can expand to other states and bring in more automotive partners.

"A better, cleaner world needs to be more than a soundbite and a photo op... "

As for lithium (you know, the main thing in the lithium-ion batteries we all use), there’s plenty of it in the world. The important part is ensuring that while being mined, we don’t fall back into our old habits of letting companies trample on the ecosystems they’re sourcing the material from. 

Take the Salton Sea in Southern California, for example. It’s an ecological disaster. Decades of agricultural runoff of pesticides and herbicides have decimated the land, water, and local economy. All those chemicals have also introduced a host of health issues to those who live in the area. We allowed this to happen, and everyone and everything involved has paid the price. 

Underneath the Salton Sea is lithium. Lots of lithium. Mining the material could create jobs, help with the transition to EVs, and oddly enough, help produce clean energy as a by-product of the mining. It all sounds like a perfect solution to a problem we created, but we need to be careful. The unintended consequences of the past should not be repeated. The idea is to build a better, cleaner world for the future. Not repeat the sins of the past. 

Decisions With Dollars

While the current crop of EVs is spectacular in its own right, we’re still in early days. That’s not an excuse for companies to be lazy about the environment, which is exactly the whole point of EVs. CEOs can’t stand on stage and talk about helping build a better world and then, like Tesla, violate the Clean Air Act at their factory. Or push back on rules that would have made vehicles more fuel-efficient the way Toyota, GM, and Fiat did in 2019

On our end, we can ensure automakers keep their promises as an entire entity with our purchasing decisions. Ask questions of the dealers. Pay attention to automotive news or at least do some research ahead of a purchase. Keep an eye on what a company is doing versus what it says in press releases. 

A better, cleaner world needs to be more than a soundbite and a photo op, it needs to be a joint effort from the entire industry, and their promises need to be kept.

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