It's no longer enough for automakers to simply build cars that are stylish or have all the latest options. Sustainability is now a driving force, as auto companies tackle such issues as fuel efficiency, alternative powertrains and how to recycle vehicles and components at the end of their lives.
"It's about providing transportation to future generations without having it negatively impacting the environment," says John Viera, director of sustainability for Ford Motor Company. He adds that it's also about educating consumers on the new choices they face.
"We're talking about different fuels, different batteries, and consumers are overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to know."
Cost is a major issue, whether it's the batteries in electric vehicles or extra engine components on vehicles that burn compressed natural gas. There also needs to be infrastructure to supply these fuels. This was always left to gas companies in the past, which refined the fuel and transported it to the stations; for possibly the first time, automakers are now involved in the process.
"The good news is that everyone has electricity at their house or work, so we've decided to work on how we provide charging equipment that is easily installable at home or at work," Viera says.
"We don't try to set up utility stations like gas companies putting in gas pumps, but we are working directly in getting people involved in home charging. These vehicles are parked there for long periods and that's where our focus has been. We think the majority of charging will happen at home or work, not at a public station."
The batteries themselves present issues. Those that use lithium-ion are now becoming the electric vehicle standard. The easiest lithium to mine is in Bolivia, Chile and China, where it's the equivalent of accessible Saudi Arabian oil; deposits in North America are more like the tar sands, harder and costlier to extract. Recycling batteries for their lithium isn't cost-effective yet, and Viera says automakers will have to work on this.
"We're not there yet, but we need to get together as an industry to address that issue," he says, referring to a protocol for dealing with used batteries.
This is not a competitive advantage; this is something we're all going to need. "We're working with other automakers on the whole recycling process for this."
Jil McIntosh is a freelance writer who reports about cars for publications and on her website www.womanonwheels.ca.