Interview with BMW Group CEO Oliver Zipse about the drive of the future, sustainability standards, resource consumption and a buyback of high-voltage battery on return of vehicle.
The eco-credentials of electric cars are the subject of much discussion. The carbon footprint from operating one is smaller than for a combustion-powered car, but the footprint of its production is larger. So how can an electric car be greener?
I don’t think there’s much point in pitting the various drivetrains against each other. On the road to sustainable mobility and climate protection, any reduction in CO2 emissions helps – no matter what drive technology is achieving it. But what is true with electric cars is that the main source of CO2 emissions is shifting, from vehicle utilisation – ideally the battery is charged with green energy – to the supply chain. The manufacture of battery cells, for example, is extremely energy-intensive. We’re working on that point with our suppliers and implementing rigorous, effective countermeasures. That way, we will be able to deliver on our mission: The ‘greenest’ electric car will be made by BMW.
That’s a clear message. What’s involved on your part?
As electrification increases, CO2 emissions from the supply chain would be on course to rise considerably, by more than a third up to 2030. That’s something we want not only to avoid but, even more, to reverse: we want to reduce our carbon footprint by at least 20 percent. To make that possible, we’ve already agreed with our suppliers that for the production of our latest-generation battery cells, they will only use green energy. By 2030 that will save a total of 10 million tonnes of CO2. In addition we are now sourcing aluminium that’s produced with electricity from solar energy – which saves another 2.5 million tonnes of CO2. And that’s not all: we’re also minimising our use of critical raw materials. In our current generation of battery cells, the cathode material is less than ten percent cobalt. And our most cutting-edge e-drive does away with rare-earth elements entirely.
Most of those savings will come from your suppliers. What are your own plants doing to contribute?
To get our suppliers round to our way of thinking, we have to set an example ourselves. That’s why the CO2 targets for our own production are the most ambitious of all: by 2030 we want to cut our CO2 emissions by 80 percent. That’s even more ambitious than the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris climate agreement. Only the remaining emissions that can’t be reduced in any meaningful way will be offset with relevant certificates. We’re starting that this year. And rest assured: the certificates will be of the very highest standard.
Our understanding of sustainability encompasses much more than CO2 though. We want to rule out any breaches of environmental standards and human rights at any stage of our supply chain. When it comes to critical raw materials, that’s particularly challenging. That’s why we are getting involved in the supply chain ourselves at certain points to help us achieve our goal. For example, we purchase our cobalt and lithium straight from the mines in Australia and Morocco for our battery cell suppliers to use. This allows us to establish our sustainability standards as a fixed part of our contracts and ensures the minerals are extracted and processed in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible.
And while we’re on the subject of sustainability, another point you need to tackle is the amount of raw materials used in car production.
Besides switching to renewable energies, we need to cut our consumption of resources radically. In 2017 more than 100 billion tonnes of raw materials were extracted. That’s more than ever before in the space of a single year. It’s a development we – and that includes the automotive industry – need to push back against. Given that resources are scarce and prices are rising, it’s a clear call for us all to be more efficient. And that’s crucial to achieving sustainable management as well.
At the BMW Group we’ve set ourselves the goal of radically increasing the share of secondary materials – such as recycled steel, plastics and aluminium – in our products. But to do that, the materials have to be very pure, and that’s the key challenge we face right now. With the current recycling process, copper from the onboard car network can make its way into the steel, so the end product no longer meets the stringent safety standards of the automotive industry. That means we have to factor in the recycling early on, as we design the car, so the onboard network is easy to remove before the vehicle is recycled. But at the same time there’s one thing that must never change: a sustainable BMW must still deliver sheer driving pleasure.
Surely there ought to be some kind of deposit system for cars, a returns system so raw materials that are in short supply can be recycled?
We’re actually planning something similar for the battery packs in our electric cars. Battery packs are full of valuable raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, to name just a few. A scheme like that could potentially be launched with our BMW iX, which reaches the market this year. But we don’t think a system where you take a deposit from the customer is the right way to go. After all, you can’t really compare the long lifecycle of a car with the lifecycle of a PET plastic bottle. And a meaningful deposit would make the vehicle so much more expensive for the customer. Instead we’re looking at paying out a premium when the car is returned to us at the end of its lifecycle. The amount would depend on the value of the raw materials it contains. Battery packs could initially have a second life as stationary energy storage and then be recycled afterwards. Ultimately that would complete the cycle and offer a resource-friendly starting-point for making new batteries.
The interview was conducted by FOCUS online editor Andreas Hentschel.