Automotive sustainability: are cars of the future needed today?

In the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, a sector already low on public confidence is left with big questions to answer. But for one Swedish automotive entrepreneur, the crisis presents an opportunity to accelerate the move to all-electric transport.

In the space of a week, VW lost a third of its value and was removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices after revelations that the automotive giant had rigged emission tests. VW is now trying to rebuild burnt bridges with the resignation of chief executive Martin Winterkorn and the recall over around 11 million cars worldwide.

But is there a bigger, industry-wide issue at play here? The transport sector currently accounts for 15% of the world’s emissions – second only to energy production. Moreover, the average vehicle trip usually consists of 1.2 people. The average bike trip is 1.1 people. So, for an extra 0.1 of a person, we are wasting an average of 150,000 litres of water in the car manufacturing process, and fuelling oil wars across the globe.

Electric cars are growing in popularity among the public – in the first quarter of 2015, sales accelerated by 366%. Evidently, there’s room for redemption in the car market. But with the COP21 Climate Conference just around the corner, questions are being asked about the role of the automotive industry and whether our vehicles are fit for our future.

This is where Lewis Horne comes in. The Swedish entrepreneur, whose Twitter profile describes him as an “innovator instigator, motivator and change-maker”, believes he holds the future of the automotive industry in his hands, and he’s willing to open up his ideas to everyone…

“The automotive industry is not playing by the rules,” Horne tells edie. “The next generation is just rushing away from brand connection. What’s important for the future of our planet is to be able to connect with these millennials and digital natives and to get them to commit to sustainable technology.

“We have too much technology on this planet which is inspired purely by economical ambitions. What we need is technology which is inspired by life.”

Horne, who founded the Social Innovation Centre at Lund University in the south of Sweden, recently began a new venture as founder and CEO of “game-changing” electric vehicle firm Uniti.

Horne believes Uniti holds the key to unlock the millennial’s interests and drive trust back into the market. The company is currently developing a prototype EV that “goes beyond batteries and mileage”, and also looks at the whole lifecycle of a car, and a more purpose-built design.

“With Uniti, we want to create a shift and make it economically viable for the big companies to pivot,” he says. “We want VW, BMW and alike to make cars much more sustainable and make them so they don’t spam the planet with five-seater, tonne-and-a-half tanks.”

The Uniti car, set to be launched in Europe by 2017, can reach 100kmph using a lightweight 15kW battery. The prototype has adopted a design with city navigation in mind. With one seat placed behind the driver, Horne describes the car as “a moped on four wheels, but with the experience of a rocket ship”.

The cars will be built from materials such as hemp and flax fibre biocomposites, ensuring minimal environmental damage – not just in the construction stage of the car, but also in the material sourcing stage.

Horne has set a target of a 1000 Uniti vehicles to be deployed by 2017; to ensure that the vehicles reach their potential heights in terms of operational ability. But, by 2020, he hopes have inroads in the US market as he aims to transform Uniti into a household name.

What Tesla has done is step one – disrupting the energy source,” says Horne. “Tesla has triggered something now that will absolutely result in all cars being electric within a short period of time. But that’s just step one.

“Step two is to look at the entire lifecycle of a vehicle and that’s what we’re doing – revolutionising the lifecycle of a vehicle and the way we go about constructing it.”

Declaring ‘stage two’ may sound like a call to arms as he gears up to take on Tesla, but Horne was quick to point out his willingness to share ideas with other carmakers and be a part of a more seismic, industry-wide shift.

Last year, Tesla opened up its own technology patents, with CEO Elon Musk claiming he “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology”. Uniti is following suit. Horne wants his patent-free prototype to encourage more start-ups to look to the EV sector as way to revolutionise how we travel.

The “best bet”, Horne says, is for hundreds more companies to start up, share ideas and feed off the likes of Tesla and Uniti’s technology.

This lifting of patents in the car industry, combined with the aftermath of the VW emissions scandal, could prove a catalyst in driving the uptake of EVs. With companies beginning to share and collaborate rather than compete and misinform, Horne believes that automotive industry can regain the trust of the public while simultaneously creating more sustainable travel methods.

“Transparency is important. There’s no reason to keep secrets if you’re doing things for the good of the planet.”

Matt Mace

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