It’s easy to see the exhaust belching from a pick-up truck and assume that’s the biggest problem to fix. But Czinger contends we’re spending too much time worrying about tailpipes when we should be rethinking the whole production process.
Less than a third of the environmental damage from traditional motor vehicles comes from fueling and driving them, according to a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that Czinger likes to cite. The rest comes from the process of manufacturing a vehicle: physically pulling all that metal from the ground, refining it, moving it, cutting, drilling and stamping it into chassis and panels.
Electric vehicles can be particularly harmful to manufacture, according to the report, requiring about 20% more energy and emissions than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Their batteries use metals like cobalt and lithium that are energy-intensive to extract and refine (and sometimes come from conflict areas), the manufacturing process can expose workers to toxins, and recycling is a complex affair. Once you account for the full life cycle, suddenly the Teslas, Leafs and Volts of the world look a shade less green.
By the middle of the 21st century, Earth will probably be home to an extra two and a half billion people, and twice as many more road-hogging, carbon-pumping cars. Little surprise, then, that tech companies such as Google and Apple, as well as a host of start-ups, are scrambling to offer their vision of our transportation future, usually with some tech-enhanced environmental or safety angle.
For Kevin Czinger, the path ahead is obvious. “The leverage point for dramatically reducing greenhouse emissions from vehicles is clearly manufacturing,” he says. “We need to radically reduce the material, energy and capital costs of designing and building a car.”
Czinger is one of a small group of automotive entrepreneurs trying to reinvent the the entire car production process. They want to use 3D printers to build cars with a fraction of the carbon footprint of traditional assembly lines, using designs that can vary from hour to hour, and incorporating new self-driving technologies the moment they become available. Along the way, they hope to boost employment across the country…