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Innovation in the Automotive Sector

An “Electrifying” Tale of Sustainability & Technology

The automotive sector is going through one of the biggest transformations in the last decades. Macro trends like electrification, engineering sustainable materials for the subsequent light-weighting of vehicles combined with the push for autonomous driving have fundamentally changed the structure and manufacturing of vehicles as we know it. Add to it the changing consumer demands brought on by Gen Z and Millennial preferences; resulting in pressure for auto-makers to innovate on their business models with car-sharing and subscription based models for after-sale services. But in a highly dynamic innovation landscape of the automotive industry, the question arises: what are some of the trends where the demand of bigger automotive companies combines with the innovations developed by startups? 

So in this article, we will look at three main current areas of innovation for the automotive sector. This does not reflect an exhaustive list but rather areas that are currently ripe for innovation and where there are already nascent startup suppliers. Suffice it to say, this article remains normative in that these are by no means the most important innovations but a perspective among many on innovations in the automotive sector. 

While the greater focus of public discourse, especially within the European Union, has primarily been on reduction of emissions to reach climate neutrality by 2050, various governments have initiated policies specifically for the automotive sector. This includes Brazil’s vehicle registration program to improve the energy efficiency of new light vehicles. Primarily tackling it with emission control legislation in the US and with the creation of National High Technology Research and Development Program (the so-called 863 Program) in China. Moreover, in some European countries, with the implementation of the European Union End-of-Life Vehicle Directive (ELV), which aims to increase the recovery of end-of-life vehicles to reduce waste and improve environmental performance.

Bioplastics and its Challenges

When it comes to materials within the automotive sector the idea is to move towards durable bioplastics having high bio-based content. This is meant to replace fossil carbon with renewable carbon and falls under the more holistic strategy of mitigating the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifetime. One of the earlier challenges, however, of bioplastics was the durability or the lack thereof. This meant understanding how a bio-based and biodegradable polymer such as polylactic acid (PLA) with its characteristics of high strength but low toughness be used for durable applications.

There has been effective, basic research that addresses the properties of toughness and strength and heat resistance conflict inherent in PLA. This is where blends and composites based on PLA have resulted in bio-composites that are fit for use in the automotive sector. The resulting properties make them suitable for non structural components for instance, in the interior of the cars including seat backs, dashboards, interior panels and wood trims. 

For interior soft-trim applications like seat covers or other textile related applications within a vehicle, there are natural fiber options that not only mean that the production process is less carbon intensive but the textiles used are derived from renewable resources.

However, an important consideration here comes into play: what is the source for PLA? As a Senior Program Manager at a leading USA, EV manufacturer, points out:

„We need to be careful with increasing demand for Bioplastics since it can potentially augment an existing global food crisis. It does so in two ways: 1) by competing for farmland with food crops for human consumption and 2) by competing with food crops themselves and increasing food prices that were then used as food or animal feedstock. So we need to look for alternative feedstock that is not a direct competitor for food such as cellulose or algae-based or even better bio-waste from food or agricultural production.“

The car-sharing trend also results in challenges pertaining to the hygienic properties of materials. Within the area, there is also development in plastic engineering that has resulted in development of materials with new anti-microbial and self-cleaning properties. Leveraging friction as a stimulus, the material's hygienic properties are activated based on the user of the car getting in and out. The fabric’s special properties are activated by passengers' getting in and out of the vehicle. Fabrics like these can provide hygiene and odor-resistance for years and are durable, tactile and even aesthetically pleasing.

Light-weighting and End-user experience

Light-weighting is another strategy to reduce emissions in the automotive industry that essentially focuses, as the terminology suggests, on reducing the weight of cars and trucks that are less heavy as a way to achieve better fuel efficiency. Some concrete instances are components of cars made from carbon fiber, windshields from plastics and its alternatives, bumpers and hard trim interior parts out of aluminum foam, as opposed to heavier materials and metals. Here innovations in battery development become pertinent since adding them to a vehicle can result in the weight of the car reaching almost 3000 kg. Moreover, they contain rare metals that are difficult to source ecologically. Some innovations within this area pertain to solid state batteries that would impact both consumers and manufacturers. However, technically solid state batteries are in its nascent stage but with great potential benefits since if it were to become commercially viable it would allow for greater energy density, more travel range, faster charging times for drivers, and lower fire risk. Another area of innovation is moving away from nickel to lithium ion for storage and shorter range vehicles. Sodium based batteries are an upcoming innovation that the automotive sector needs to keep tabs on as well due to the rising cost of lithium.

Autonomous driving and digitisation open up more areas of innovation within this sector. These areas can be further divided into two main sub-categories that are detection technologies and Human Machine interfaces (HMI) for enhancing in-car experience and making cars safer. Technologies and process innovations that make Lidar systems cost effective, that is smaller and cheaper, can replace cameras and make autonomy at level 5 more viable for automakers. Moreover, radars and ultrasonics that compliment lidar and vision technologies are another broad area where we see further innovations. 

The automotive sector is ripe for innovation in various different fields. Some of these fields are seeing rapid developments while others still need more basic research. Often the challenge for automakers is to find the right supplier to invest in or develop a pilot project with. Having completed numerous sourcings in diverse verticals of the automotive sector ranging from connectivity and digitisation oriented projects to materials for a more carbon neutral vehicle, we can be an effective partner for innovation in your firm. 

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