Automotive industry goes green

Automotive industry goes green

All around the world, industries are going green. The transport industry is no exception, writes PAUL RILEY…

The times, they are a-changin, as the song goes. So too the transport industry. In its official website, the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (NAAMSA) is offering practical fuel saving tips to motorists interested in improving their fuel economy and reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. NAAMSA states (on the same website) that, “all vehicle manufacturers are committed to providing safer, high-tech, environmentally friendly and highly fuel efficient new products”.

In some quarters, the alleged environmental commitment will be met with a dose of cynicism, perhaps. It certainly cannot be assumed that the local industry is invulnerable to the sea of change in international opinion that has been witnessed in recent years, or that it is simply too stubborn and avaricious to implement genuine transformation and thereby reduce its environmental impact. Although the local automotive industry appears to be confronted by a uniquely challenging set of circumstances, the technology of the future is looking increasingly “green”; and the local automotive industry is not unaware of this fact.

The main obstacle to adopting more environmentally friendly automotive technology in South Africa, it is agreed, is the non-availability of quality enabling fuels. Many stakeholders in the industry, including NAAMSA, have advocated the introduction of legislation and incentives for regulating fuel production in South Africa, but this has not yet materialised. The lack of the required fuels for more environmentally friendly vehicles thus represents a major constraint on the progress of the automotive industry with regard to reducing harmful emissions.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The zero emission Joule automobile, for instance, was recently unveiled by the Cape Town based engineering company, Optimal Energy. The company was established in 2005 by Kobus Meiring (CEO), Mike Lomberg, Jian Swiegers and Gerhard Swart. The company already employs over 100 people. Optimal Energy was initially funded by the Innovation Fund (IF), an instrument of the Department of Science and Technology. The company specializes in the development of renewable and clean energy solutions to energy-related environmental challenges.

South Africa’s Joule is a silent, urban passenger vehicle that conforms to UN-ECE safety standards. It displays a number of technological innovations that maximise energy efficiency, while maintaining impressive performance. It has a regenerative ABS braking system, a top speed of 135 km/h and a nominal range of 300 km. The car was recently on display at the 80th International Motor Show in Geneva and is due to go into mass production at the end of 2012.

Jaco van Loggerenberg, media liaison for Optimal Energy, explains that there is enormous potential for this kind of battery electric vehicle in the local market. A great deal of the interest generated by the Joule is related to its revolutionary “green” credentials, of course, but it is also a highly prudent choice for potential customers. “It is less expensive to maintain than a normal vehicle. It doesn’t require petrol and is less expensive from an after-market and service point of view, with fewer working parts and other technological improvements which reduce the need for servicing,” comments Van Loggerenberg.

Automotive industry goes greenThere are a number of other noteworthy developments both in and around the automotive industry, however, which appear to indicate an increasingly green mindset in South Africa. Scania, leading Swedish truck manufacturer and winner of the Green Supply Chain Award for environmental supply chain planning and execution, recently supplied the Johannesburg Metro Council with a third generation ethanol-powered bus that is currently being tested as a possible alternative to the traditional diesel-powered vehicles in use. The ethanol-powered engines reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% and Scania’s ethanol buses are already deployed for commercial use in countries such as Great Britain, Spain, Italy Belgium and Norway. In Sweden, over 600 of these buses have been adopted for use in city transport systems, and this technology, if adopted, holds out great promise for reducing local emissions, too.

Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA), meanwhile, has reduced its carbon footprint by 15% since 2007, forging ahead of the global group target of a 20% reduction by 2020, which was set by its parent company, Daimler AG. The MBSA manufacturing plant in East London has achieved this landmark reduction in production-related emissions by introducing (amongst other things): solar water heating, energy efficient lighting, the optimisation of process temperature parameters, insulation improvements, the implementation of energy efficient equipment and the optimisation of plant operating and shutdown times.

Mercedes-Benz plans its infrastructure and equipment in accordance with European environmental standards, which include measures such as: underground fuel supply installations, inert gas fire protection in flammable chemical stores, reduction of CFCs in refrigeration units, elimination of mercury vapour lighting, regular monitoring of underground/surface-water and air quality, reduction in water usage and waste reduction, and re-use and recycling programmes. MBSA’s environmental programme is audited on an annual basis in order to verify and maintain its compliance with the ISO 14001 standard.

However, other South African manufacturers may have similar success stories to tell in the future. There are obvious financial incentives for companies to adopt energy efficient production methods and with the steep rise in the electricity price in 2010 and similar increases likely to follow, there may be no alternative for manufacturers that intend to remain viable and competitive. According to Annelise van der Laan, media liaison for MBSA’s corporate division, “We may already be seeing signs – with the introduction of the new carbon tax – that the future success of automotive manufacturers will depend to a large degree on their environmental policies and carbon emission levels.”

Moreover, it’s not only the vehicle manufacturers who are going green. Of the environmentally friendly technological innovations that are currently finding their way into the South African automotive market, Goodyear South Africa is leading the way. Goodyear’s “Max Technology” range won the first prize for innovation at the 2009 Automechanika trade fair. Goodyear’s “Max Technology” combines tread designs and materials technology to produce “lower rolling resistance” in its tyres. This results in less energy being required to propel the tyres, reduced fuel consumption and diminished environmental impact. The judges on the Automechanika panel concluded,  “The technology constitutes a quantum leap in tyre safety and performance and carries with it substantial environmental benefits.”

In addition, the Institute of Waste Management (IWMSA) and the Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs rewarded Goodyear’s environmental management programme with the “Medium Environmental Impact” category award in the Eastern Cape Top Green Organisation Awards 2009. MBSA received the award in the “High Environmental Impact” category. The awards were conferred based on waste management and waste minimisation initiatives. Goodyear is another South African company with ISO 14001 certification for environmental management. In a collaborative effort with its contractors, Goodyear reduced its non-recyclable waste by 85% within a period of two years.

Risk control manager, Rene van der Merwe, elaborates further: “Goodyear is a zero-waste-to-landfill facility. Our philosophy is to segregate, re-use and recycle to ensure we do not have an impact on our environment. Non-recyclable waste is thermally destructed, and the ash is used in brick making. We make sure that our waste contractors and their sub-contractors apply the same philosophy.”

In conclusion, major players within the South African wheels game have made significant – though admittedly modest – progress in recent years. As an industry, we obviously still have a long way to go. Having said that, recycling programmes and responsible waste management are becoming increasingly commonplace in the industry; and companies such as MBSA are making concerted efforts to reduce their carbon emissions via energy-efficient production processes. Furthermore, although the automotive industry faces major context-specific challenges, green technology is also starting to gain a tenuous foothold. Such modest advancement may be a long way off from the widespread assimilation of soybean oil dashboards, corn oil upholstery and other revolutionary green technology, but one has to start somewhere.

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