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Countries worldwide have signed up for decarbonization targets to limit the global temperature rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that global temperature should not exceed 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels1 to avoid the most dire effects of climate change. Transportation comprises around a quarter of carbon emissions globally and 28 percent in the US2, which is the highest of any sector.
These realities are why automotive OEMs put massive development efforts behind electric vehicles (EVs). But while EVs will greatly improve the approximately 25-30 percent thermal efficiency of internal combustion, automakers also want to enhance vehicle sustainability. This article explores three ways the smart cabin can help these efforts to improve EV sustainability.
In the push for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, energy efficiency is critical to maximizing the impact of every energy unit consumed. As a result, vehicle engineers are looking at all available energy sources for potential integration or rerouting.
One way the smart cabin does its share is by integrating intelligent sensors and AI algorithms to regulate passenger climate efficiently. In addition, smart cabins segment the vehicle interior into zones, directing airflow elsewhere to avoid heating or cooling empty seats. These features allow the vehicle to draw only the energy needed instead of a prescribed level that may consume excess power, increasing efficiency to extend driving range.
Chemical companies are manufacturing new lower global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants to significantly improve carbon emission impact at enhanced efficiencies over incumbent materials. In the future, these new fluids could integrate with the battery thermal management systems to optimize energy flows and maximize the entire vehicle's energy.
Lifecycle Climate Performance (LCCP) is becoming increasingly important to vehicle manufacturers when quantifying sustainability improvements. LCCP considers not only the energy efficiency at the vehicle level, but also includes the impact of grid emissions—through charging infrastructure and strategy—as well as material production and disposal.
Measuring the carbon input up and down the supply chain expands the control boundary for reporting sustainability improvement, ensuring manufacturers don't trade higher sustainability in one focus area for lower performance in another.
Sustainable materials have a dual effect on the environment: they are replenishable and reduce waste. Leveraging sustainable materials is essential to develop a truly carbon-neutral EV. In addition, OEMs will need to consider a material's entire lifecycle—from responsible raw material sourcing to end-of-life disposal—in the product development process.
The smart cabin has begun incorporating sustainable materials like recycled plastics, natural fibers, and low-emission adhesives to reduce the vehicle's carbon footprint. These materials can enhance comfort and aesthetics while improving the sustainability profile of the car.
For years, companies have used recycled plastic bottles to make post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—or polyester—as a low-cost, durable, and sustainable option. Automakers are leveraging its use for durable seat materials in the smart cabin.
BMW uses another sustainable plastic, Econyl, in the carpeting and floor mat designs in its iX SUV. The material combines waste from plastic manufacturing and recycled fishing nets from the ocean to produce a nylon alternative with 80 percent reduced CO23.
Mercedes employs fully recyclable (and fast-growing) bamboo for carpeting fiber in the EQXX. Engineers use bamboo in medical, construction, clothing, and many other applications, creating a large pipeline of existing source material.
Energy from waste heat recovery and intelligent lighting can improve EV sustainability significantly. Electric drivetrains are much more efficient—77 percent grid electricity to wheel power—than combustion-based ones, with 12–30 percent gasoline energy to wheel power4. In addition, stopping the vehicle and cabin lighting add additional energy sources for sustainability gains. Three paths for EV energy harvesting are regenerative braking, smart lighting, and rooftop solar.
Regenerative braking recovers some of the energy lost during the stoppage of the vehicle. This recovered power is returned to the battery for range extension or powering other vehicle subsystems. At an efficiency of up to 70 percent5, regenerative braking can add thousands of miles of range per year without accelerating battery degradation. However, it increases the traction system's maintenance cost due to the added complexity. Still, the power advantages over the vehicle life are leading companies like Tesla and Rivian to adopt this energy recovery method in their vehicles.
Like zoned cabin cooling, intelligent lighting reacts to the driver's needs and cabin conditions to direct lighting only where needed, consuming less energy for the same performance. In addition, LED lighting can improve energy efficiency by up to 80 percent over incandescent lighting, leveraging motion sensors and additional spectral colors to optimize power consumption. Smart lighting can also aid drivers by optimizing light where needed and improving safety.
One of the biggest challenges with EVs is the performance drop-off at extreme temperatures. Employing rooftop solar to preheat or cool the battery raises resilience during high-load conditions and improves range by nearly 23 percent in power smart-cabin subsystems. The approach also increases battery life and reduces charge time/energy draw, both significant sustainability gains.
The smart cabin can deliver sustainability in multiple ways, from improved thermal management, increased recycled material content, energy harvesting, and intelligent lighting. With evolving consumer preferences, regulatory shifts, and public company goals, sustainability will become an increasingly important theme for EV manufacturers. Beyond the trends discussed here, you can learn more about how smart cabin technology is changing the automotive industry and advancing performance and sustainability.
Manufacturers should encourage consumers to consider eco-friendly features when choosing vehicles with smart cabins to deliver scale economy improvements through mass adoption. Highlighting the performance and user benefits from cabins employing sustainable content is a great way to achieve that.
Finally, taking a lifecycle carbon impact view will be critical to suppliers, as the OEMs will turn to them for development ideas to deliver sustainability improvements. This partnership is analogous to how automakers structure commercial agreements for suppliers to pass through cost-reduction performance as the designs mature.
Adam Kimmel has nearly 20 years as a practicing engineer, R&D manager, and engineering content writer. He creates white papers, website copy, case studies, and blog posts in vertical markets including automotive, industrial/manufacturing, technology, and electronics. Adam has degrees in chemical and mechanical engineering and is the founder and principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, LLC, an engineering and technology content writing firm.
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