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Sustainability Hits the Fast Lane at the Frankfurt Auto Show

As we reported earlier this year from Geneva and New York, sustainability is more important to the auto industry than ever before.

At the 64th "Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung," Frankfurt's annual auto extravaganza in car-crazy Germany, nearly all of the significant vehicles revealed have a sustainability story to tell. The September 13-14 press preview will be followed by a public show through the 25th of September, with 900 exhibitors from more than 30 countries here.

Small (and Light) is Beautiful

Sustainability is the dominant theme in the auto industry today because of aggressive legislation that targets manufacturer-average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025 in the U.S. and an equivalent of 57.6 mpg in Europe by 2020.

bmw i8But to meet new regulations, automakers have to first satisfy the laws of physics. Moving more mass takes more energy, which consumes more fuel. After decades during which car model became heavier with each generation, we're finally seeing the trend reverse. For example:

  • The new Porsche 911 is 100 pounds lighter than its predecessor.
  • Daimler's Smart Forvision concept -- a hint at the next-generation iconic city car, features extensive use of weight-saving plastics, including what partner BASF calls "the first all-plastic wheel suitable for high-volume production."
  • The stunning i3 and i8 concepts (i8 pictured at left) from BMW preview the production cars that will arrive in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Aside from their EV credentials, both vehicles feature weight-slashing carbon fiber as replacements for the steel used in conventional vehicles. The Audi A2 concept follows a similar theme but hints at less carbon fiber and more aluminum, with a minimalist design direction compared to the curves of the BMWs.
  • Even Land Rover, previewing the 2015 replacement for its venerable Defender (which can easily trace its routes to the 1948 original) showed a DC100 concept that features "a lightweight, mixed-alloy platform" with "cutting-edge, sustainable, hi-tech materials taken from aerospace industries." A report from an industry insider suggests this may drop more than 1,000 pounds -- critical to meeting fuel-economy targets.



Beyond the news on direct weight-saving measures, some of the most interesting and well-received vehicles at the show have the common virtue of small size, showing the direction in which the overall industry is headed.

  • One of the stars is Volkswagen's Up! (pictured below), a charming city car that will slot well below the Golf and even Polo in size. It goes on sale in Germany at the end of the year, and might come to America as well.
  • A small car we certainly will get in the U.S. is the Focus ST, which Ford calls its "first global performance car," with its 247-hp EcoBoost engine that still provides the fuel economy you'd expect from a 2-liter four-cylinder engine. The yet smaller and more efficient Fiesta ST is just a concept, but one that looks production-ready.
  • Revealed for the first time is also the all-new Mercedes B-class, which goes on sale here in November and could also come to the U.S. soon. (It will almost certainly be available in Canada, where the current B-class is sold.) Mercedes says their new small car is substantially more agile and efficient, with a feature list that you'd expect from one of their luxury sedans. The B-class platform will also be adopted for their new, yet-smaller A-class that will debut in the coming two years.
  • Hyundai took the wraps off of its good-looking i30 hatchback, which will provide serious competition to the all-new Honda Civic here in Europe and might also show up in the U.S. as the Elantra Touring.
  • Also on display at Frankfurt is a slew of "urban mobility concepts" that combine the light weight and efficiency of a motorcycle with the all-weather capability and packaging of a car. Audi, Opel, and Volkswagen each showed various takes on this sub-1,000-pound vehicle segment, but none is immediately slated for production.

volkwagen up

VERGE is Here

Other important news from Frankfurt ties directly to the GreenBiz VERGE concept. Mobility and information technologies continue to come together across vehicle makes and models:

  • Mercedes-Benz used a concept A-class (pictured at top) to pitch its vision of a system that centers around the driver's smartphone and integrates its features in a way that minimizes driver distraction while still enabling social media.
  • Ford's Chief Technical Officer, Paul Mascarenas, pitched the next-generation SYNC system, which takes a different approach, using instead "the cloud" for in-car connectivity, hinting that features such as a "smart alarm clock" that factors in weather and traffic and your planned commute could be available soon.
  • Many of the journalists at the show also experienced courtesy rides from a new car-sharing partnership between BMW and car-rental company Sixt. The overall concept is similar to Zipcar, but the key difference with DriveNow is the ability to retrieve the car at one station and drop it at another -- all made possible through a smartphone app. As with all car-sharing ventures, the potential is there to reduce the number of cars needed for a given population, with corresponding benefits in lower operating costs, congestion, and impacts from vehicle production through end-of-life.

Does It All Add Up?

Meeting the significant sustainability challenges for personal mobility will require a combination of engineering solutions like lightweighting, electric drive, and integrating technologies to improve the transportation system overall. There isn't a single silver-bullet solution.

Often overlooked, however, is driver demand. We need to want a reason to move from our bigger vehicles to smaller, more efficient ones. Fuel prices are one factor in that equation, but the desirability of smaller cars is another. The exhibition in Frankfurt shows that the smaller cars coming soon to Europe (and, in some cases, the U.S. as well) are very desirable indeed.

Photos courtesy of the Frankfurt Auto Show.

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