Can the car industry ever be sustainable?

Posted: 8 October 2001

A new report, by an independent British research organisation, says that the automobile industry will never provide sustainable mobility for the growing human population - by itself. Here, Alex Cutler, one of its three authors explains why.

The simple, worrying answer to the question raised in the title of this article is no, the automobile industry cannot - and will not - deliver sustainable mobility on its own. This is a key conclusion of Driving Sustainability, the latest SustainAbility report for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Nor should this come as a surprise. For, while the growing use of the car has provided many people with an improved means of getting around for all sorts of purposes, it has also brought a mind-numbing range of problems.

Little more than a century old, the auto sector has left broad, deep tracks on the global social and environmental scene. The scale of the industry is immense. The world car fleet exceeded 520 million vehicles by 1999¹, and forecasts suggest that car numbers are likely to double to 1 billion by 2010 - and treble to 1.5 billion by 2035.

Before considering the environmental impacts of this mighty growth, it is worth noting the extraordinary human costs: 25 million people have died in car accidents in the 20th century, with many millions more injured.²

Air pollution

On the environmental front, it is hard to know where to start. Cars collectively represent the largest single source of global air pollution, among other things accounting for around 30 per cent of industrialised country emissions and 17 per cent of the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Focus down on the typical urban area, however, and road vehicles account for anywhere between 40 and 80 per cent of total emissions.³

Nor is this all. We tend to concentate on the vehicles and ignore the infrastructure. To take just one example, just consider the impacts associated with the 10,000 tonnes of aggregates needed for each kilometre of two-lane highway. And then there are the traffic-related impacts. In the United States alone, congestion is estimated to waste 6.8 billion gallons of fuel and add 4.5 billion hours of travel time each year, at a cost $78 billion.

No wonder then that some large questions are being asked of the auto manufacturing companies, the key one being: 'Are the auto companies aware of the scale of the challenge they face and are they responding with the required energy and radicalism ?'.

Company reports

Initial research suggested that the idea of sustainable mobility, while beginning to appear in company reporting and language, is still ill-defined by them. To cut through the complexity, we focused on four major issues: climate change, product life cycle management, and the impact of automobiles on urban quality of life and on the emerging economies.

We looked at the reporting and public communication by ten of the world's largest auto-makers: BMW (Germany), DaimlerChrysler (Germany), Fiat (Italy), Ford Motor Company (USA), GM (USA), Honda (Japan), PSA Peugeot Citroën (France), Renault (France), Toyota (Japan), and Volkswagen (Germany).

We then used a simple framework, based on work by the Dutch electronics group Philips (Figure 1), to frame the analysis of the issues. The aim was to see how the companies had faced up to the 'triple bottom line' of social, economic and environmental challenges.

Diagram inspired by - and adapted (with permission) from - a diagram produced by Professor A.L.N. Stevels of Philips Consumer Electronics, first published by the Rathenau Institute, May 1996.

We found that in the early stages, car makers look for ways of stretching existing technologies, or developing new ones. Over time, however, the behaviour of companies and motorists becomes more important in driving and shaping change. Finally, when it becomes clear that a paradigm shift is needed, thinking increasingly focuses on systems-level changes.

In terms of the four key issues, listed above, the project findings are worrying:

  • Climate change: Corporate reporting is surprisingly weak on the challenges posed and the solutions being developed. Hybrid vehicles seem to be the interim vehicle choice for addressing climate change, with longer-term bets currently placed largely on fuel cells. But neither of these technological advancements will address the fundamental problems linked to the growing number of vehicles.

  • Life cycle management: Aspects of this issue are well addressed, particularly 'end of life' vehicles in Europe, but little connection is yet being made in European manufacturers' reports, between the different stages of a vehicle's life. And there is very little evidence that auto-makers are asking fundamental questions about how this might facilitate the shift from transport products to novel mobility and access services.

  • Liveable cities: Again, we see a largely technological approach: telemetrics for congestion; improved emissions technology for air pollution; and fuel efficiency measures for reduced fuel use. So far, at least, auto-makers are trying to avoid responsibility for issues seen as beyond their control.

  • Emerging economies: If considered at all, developing countries are regarded as growth opportunities. As yet there is virtually no reporting on the relevant markets, trends or issues, or any of the substantial dilemmas associated with growth in emerging markets.

Overwhelmingly, the focus from car companies, and the one they feel most at ease with, is on technological improvements. Despite the progress some companies have made on these technological improvements, there is almost nothing in their reporting to explain whether - and, if so, how - auto-makers are working at the behavioural and systems level to achieve a more fundamental change in transport and mobility systems.

More reports

Of the ten companies, Daimler Chrysler performed top in the four issues we benchmarked, with a score of 50 per cent overall. Tied for second place were BMW and Volkswagen, with 45 per cent each.

In terms of sustainability reporting, the majority of companies are still mainly offering environmental reports, although evidence of social impact is beginning to creep in. Ford was the only company to concentrate transparently on 'the triple bottom line' with their corporate citizenship report.

During production of Driving Sustainability, the top automotive sustainability reporter was Volkswagen, with a score of 96 out of a maximum 196. Since publication, with a new crop of reporting about to emerge, SustainAbility will be measuring the new crop of reports as they come out.

Driving Sustainability is co-authored by Alex Cutler, John Elkington and Tell Münzing of SustainAbility. Further details from


1. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 20012. The World Bank (see 'Road Safety' under topic section on 'Transport')3. Michael Carley and Philippe Spapens, Sharing the World, Earthscan, 1998