Cars are incredibly complex two-tonne consumer products, but they’ve been built in more or less the same way since the Ford Model T. Today, that’s finally changing, as forward-thinking car companies work toward the holy grail: the carbon-neutral car. Getting there means more than just electric motors and batteries — it means creating a vehicle from sustainably sourced renewable materials that can be fully recycled; it means rethinking the car from the ground up. We’ve got a long way to go, but here’s an early look at how brands are working to make cars more sustainable.
BMW’s new all-electric iX SUV is a masterpiece of design. Its avant-garde cabin doesn’t just look good, though — it’s full of sustainably minded materials. Carpets and floor mats are made from Econyl, a nylon material made from recycled fishing nets recovered from the sea, as well as residual waste from plastics manufacturing. Compared to conventional petroleum-based nylon, BMW says, recycled plastics emit around 80 per cent less CO2. Elsewhere in the iX is leather upholstery tanned with olive leaf extract gathered “following the annual pruning of the trees in European olive groves.”
Bamboo is fast-growing and entirely renewable, which is why it’s becoming a favourite material for use in furniture, clothing, and now cars. The plush carpets in the Mercedes Vision EQXX concept are made entirely from sustainable bamboo fibre.
Mercedes-Benz turned to the Israel-based startup UBQ Materials for a sustainable plastic substitute made from waste — including old cardboard and even diapers — that would otherwise end up in a garbage dump. One kilogram of UBQ material removes 1.3 kilograms of trash from landfill, according to the company. (The extra 0.3 kilos is water.) The resulting material can be used just like plastic, and can even be 3-D printed. According to Mercedes, UBQ has “very strong potential for transfer into series production in the near future.”
Reusing aluminum often results in different grades of this energy-intensive alloy being “downcycled” into the lowest grade, thereby limiting its use. Polestar is hoping to solve this issue in the future by labelling the various grades of aluminum used in its vehicles, as seen on the company’s O2 concept. Labelling materials means they can be properly recycled, so precious high-grade, highstrength aluminum retains those properties even after recycling. That would dramatically reduce the need to produce new “virgin” aluminum, according to the company.
The electric Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX concept car made headlines when it was unveiled early this year because it can travel 1,000 kilometres on a single battery charge. Inside the car, however, there were many little details that made it more sustainable, including door pulls made from AMSilk’s Biosteel fibre. This high-strength, silk-like vegan fabric is grown using microorganisms — and it’s said to feel just as soft as silk.
Another clever idea seen on Polestar’s O2 concept, which debuted earlier this year, is the mono-material interior. A single material, in this case recycled polyester, is used to create all kinds of different pieces for the car’s cabin: foam backing, adhesives, laminates, and even 3-D-knit fabric for the seats. The idea is currently in the concept phase, but the company says mono-material wouldn’t just make recycling easier, it would be “a significant step towards greater circularity while also reducing weight and waste.”
Audi makes the seat covers in its fourth-generation A3 sedan out of recycled materials that contain as many as 45 large PET bottles. PET is polyethylene terephthalate — a sciency word for polyester — which is used both for plastic bottles and as a hard-wearing fabric, so it’s no surprise that it works well as a durable seat cover.