According to Statista, in 2022, the global automotive industry is valued at 2.95 trillion U.S. dollars. The continuous growth of the sector poses significant challenges for manufacturers, who are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and consume less energy in the production process.

This pressure comes from customers, regulators, and governments alike, as climate change becomes a pressing issue across the globe. With the introduction of the Paris Agreement, for which 195 nations have agreed to make changes to keep temperature increase below 2 degrees (and reach Net Zero by 2050), change is afoot in how the automotive industry consumes energy.

The transportation sector accounts for 25% of global energy consumption, and it’s also the sector that will find it most challenging to meet proposed goals. In recent years, emerging technologies have enabled the development of hybrid electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles. However, despite offering a greener future, these developments don’t immediately address the sector’s high energy consumption.

Let’s take a closer look at the challenges surrounding energy consumption in the automotive industry:

How much energy is used in the production of vehicles?

Recent studies suggest that the energy required to produce a typical passenger vehicle is 41.8 megajoules per kilogramme (MJ/kg). To provide some context, that’s almost 40 times the amount of energy used to run a household washing machine with an average consumption of 1.08 MJ/kg.

It’s important to consider energy consumption in the context of the environment as higher consumption means higher carbon dioxide production. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

And although electric vehicles produce 17-30% less carbon emissions than fossil fuel vehicles when in operation, they emit 25% more CO2 in the manufacturing process due to the production of their batteries.

The energy resources used in the automotive sector

The most common energy resource used in the automotive sector is natural gas. It represents 44% of the total energy consumption for the automotive industry. The majority of this consumption (26%) is centered on the manufacturing of plastics like polypropylene, polyurethane, and polyvinyl chloride.

Coal is another commonly used energy resource, of which 82% is consumed in steel production processes, with the remaining 28% used as electricity in alumina reduction.

Despite fossil fuels being the dominant energy resource in the automotive industry, the increasingly competitive price of renewable energy has seen the industry explore new opportunities for greener manufacturing. Coupled with increasing pressure from governments, regulators, and consumers, the automotive industry is gradually shifting towards renewable energy in its processes. 

For example, an increasing number of companies are using additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, to produce component parts on a large scale. Companies like Ford and Volkswagen have created their own 3D printing technologies to produce additive cars.

Likewise, cloud technology is reducing energy consumption in the industry by eliminating the need for on-site data centres. With cloud servers, the data required to run smart and electric vehicles can be handled remotely, reducing operational and cooling costs associated with on-site centres.

How to reduce energy consumption in car manufacturing

To achieve a zero-emission future, many automotive companies are developing low and zero emission technologies across the manufacturing process. While additive manufacturing and cloud technology is helping reduce fossil fuel and power consumption, renewable Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are encouraging companies to source their energy from renewable sources and invest in alternative power-generation technologies.

Similarly, continued investment in water-efficient technologies will continue to reduce energy consumption in the industry. According to a report published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), long-term investments in water-efficient technologies, coupled with the gradual adjustment of procedures have made it possible to reduce water use per vehicle by 43.5%, and absolute volumes by 20.6%.

SMMT also reports that at the design stage, it’s possible for at least 95% of each vehicle by weight to be recycled and recovered at the end of its life. In using high quality materials and adopting efficient production processes, manufacturers can ensure that vehicles are durable and repairable.

Other practical steps that can be taken to reduce energy consumption in the manufacturing process include using airtight doors and airlock windows to ensure operations don’t cause excessive heat loss.

Shading the manufacturing plant itself with trees can reduce the need for air conditioning and result in lower energy consumption. Companies can also invest in efficient assembly line systems to ensure that failures are kept to a minimum, as failing equipment causes disruptions that result in energy loss.

Energy jobs in the automotive industry

According to Autovista24, skills shortages caused by the pandemic and other global events have created a high demand for energy professionals in the automotive industry. As the sector shifts to electrification, there’s an ongoing need to bring new people into the industry.

A recent report published by climate advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) finds that while 2021 saw fossil fuels jobs in the U.S. automotive industry drop by more than 35,000, the clean energy and clean vehicle subsectors regained about 156,000 positions.

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