Green Car Conference looks at sustainable vehicles

Well-attended first-time event marred by lack of composites industry representation.
#toyota #sustainability #marketing


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On Nov. 13, 2008, Crain Communications’ Automotive News magazine held its first Green Car Conference & Exhibition at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi, Mich. The one-day event attracted just over 350 attendees from North America, Europe and Asia — a high turnout for a new event, particularly given the state of the U.S. auto industry and the world economy. Attendees included high-level movers and shakers from the global auto OEMs and tier suppliers as well as think tanks and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Notable sponsors and exhibitors included host sponsor Ernst & Young (London, U.K.), as well as the Aluminum Assn. (Arlington, Va.); the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI, Washington, D.C.); Robert Bosch LLC (Farmington Hills, Mich.); Bridgestone Corp. (Tokyo, Japan); Delphi Corp. (Troy, Mich.); Firestone (Chicago, Ill.); i2 Technologies Inc. (Dallas, Texas); IBM Corp. (Armonk, N.Y.); Indiana Office of Energy & Defense Development (Indianapolis, Ind.); Inter-national Automotive Components (Dear-born, Mich.); Johnson Controls Inc. (Milwaukee, Wis.); Magna International Inc. (Aurora, Ontario, Canada); Meridian Automotive Systems (Allen Park, Mich.); Michelin Group (Paris, France); Michigan Economic Development Corp. (Lansing, Mich.); Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.); Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International (Warrendale, Pa.); Tenneco (Lake Forest, Ill.); Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (Oslo and Stockholm, Sweden); Yazaki North America (Canton, Mich.); and ZF Friedrichshafen AG (Friedrichshafen, Germany).

Where was the composites industry?

Unfortunately, even a casual look at the preceding sponsors list is a good indication that plastics and composites industries were conspicuously under-represented. Although the Aluminum Assn. and the AISI were on hand to represent metals suppliers, the event was — with the exception of a couple of displays and one panelist — nearly a complete miss for the composites industry. Meridian Automotive Systems was the only sponsor/exhibitor at the conference with a strong message about composites. The company touted its claim to have helped OEM customers remove 25 million lb (11,340 metric tonnes) of mass from their vehicles in 2008. And on display was a new type of “green” SMC component — a technology teaser we’ll hear more about after it launches later this year. Outside of the Meridian exhibit, only two others highlighted composites. International Automotive Components displayed some natural-fiber reinforced interior trim components while Yazaki North America had developmental natural-fiber electrical covers on hand.

The resulting dearth of composites-related discussion points at the show was ironic, given that Automotive News’ sister publication is Plastics News, a global plastics weekly.

It was also a very real lost opportunity for the ailing auto industry: Neat and reinforced plastics are the keys to many “green” goals, including not only the obvious vehicle lightweighting but also limiting CO2 emissions (in the case of bio-based and natural-fiber reinforced products), cost-effective realization of “slippery” styling lines and reducing costs through parts consolidation and elimination of assembly steps. In many cases, off-the-shelf composites technologies already offer exactly what is needed to help green vehicles without sacrificing cost, aesthetics or safety. And with time and research investment, evolving composites technologies show great promise of providing even higher performance, manufacturing efficiencies and design versatility to leapfrog current vehicle architectures and produce cars and light trucks that really are sustainable, safe and satisfying for consumers to drive.

Focus on sustainability

Apart from the lack of plastics and composites contributions, the conference nevertheless had many high points. There was healthy discussion about why the U.S. needs a coherent national energy policy. Attendees sat in on debates about whether or not a gas tax that would keep fuel prices sufficiently high (regardless of the market price of crude) to encourage conservation efforts and fund alternative research would work. They heard that the current electrical grid should be able to handle a rapid and significant electrification of our passenger fleets. Opinions differed about what type of sustainable vehicle architectures will dominate in the not-too-distant future: hybrid gas/electric, plug-in electric, extended-range hybrids and/or fuel-cell vehicles. Of course, everyone talked about mass reduction, better aerodynamics, reduced rolling resistance and the critical need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from passenger vehicles.

The conference program kicked off with quick comments by Keith Crain, publisher and editor-in-chief of Automotive News, who reminded the audience that “being green is no longer a distant goal for automotive manufacturers and suppliers but an issue as vital as any other facing the industry today. It is one that requires immediate action — not only for the planet’s survival but for our industry’s as well.”

Peter Brown, associate publisher and editorial director at the magazine, noted, “For the auto industry, the challenge of the 21st Century is crystal clear: Make cleaner, far more efficient vehicles that people can afford to drive — and that they’ll love to drive.”

Keynote speaker Michael M. Brylawski, VP, vehicle efficiency practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute Inc. (Boulder, Colo.), said, “We’re on the cusp of the fourth major transformation of this industry, with a convergence of lightweighting and integration, electrification, and a joining of mobility with utilities.”

The next speaker, Gregg Sherrill, chairman/CEO of tier supplier Tenneco, called for a commitment to a “green” agenda: “The ethic of environmentalism will impact us for decades to come, and mitigating emissions must become the central role of our industry,” he maintained. “It’s not only the right thing to do, but it sells vehicles, too.”

In his introductory comments for a panel discussion on “Powertrains of the Future,” Dr. Patrick Oliva, tire manufacturer Michelin’s corporate VP, Group Projects Div. and secretary general of the company’s Group Executive Council, reminded attendees that “road mobility today is not sustainable, and the solutions are not commensurate with the criticality of what’s at stake,” adding that  “there is a disconnect between the magnitude of the problems we face and the progress we’re making.”

Other panelists included Jaycie Chitwood, senior strategic planner, Advanced Technologies at Toyota Motor Sales USA (Torrance, Calif.); Sue Cischke, senior VP, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.); Timothy M. Manganello, chairman and CEO, BorgWarner Inc. (Auburn Hills, Mich.); and David Vieau, president and CEO, A123 Systems (Waterton, Mass.).

The afternoon kicked off with two speakers: Lou Rhodes, VP, Advance Vehicle Engineering, and president, ENVI at Chrysler LLC (Auburn Hills., Mich.), spoke about the company’s electric drive vehicle program. He was followed by Dr. Eladio Knipping, senior technical manager, Environment at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI, Palo Alto, Calif.), who spoke about the convergence of transportation and “the grid.” This was followed by another panel discussion called “The Rest of the Car.” Participants included Michael Ableson, executive director, Global Advanced Vehicle Development Div. at General Motors (Detroit, Mich.); Karla Butler, Automotive Marketing director, Americas at DuPont Automotive (Troy. Mich.); Kyle Williams, director, Automotive Systems Integration at Robert Bosch LLC; Dr. Rick Winter, Operations director, Development at Alcoa Technical Center (Alcoa Center, Pa.); and Dr. Blake Zuidema, director, Automotive Product Applications for steel producer ArcelorMittal (Luxembourg).

After a networking reception, dinner was served, Automotive News gave out its first PACE Environmental Awards, and Carlos Tavares, executive VP, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (Franklin, Tenn.), gave the keynote address, highlighting the principles behind “SHIFT_,” the automaker’s ongoing revitalization program — sustainability (preservation and restoration of natural resources), community (the need to return value back to society), partnership (developing working relationships with other automotive manufacturers) and accessibility (making personal transportation affordable to anyone) — and how the program’s principles might coalesce in electric-powered vehicles.

The Green Car Conference & Exhibition returns to the same location on Nov. 17, 2009. Hopefully, composites and plastics will be better represented.