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Car Tech Q&A: John Viera, Ford environmental head

At the launch of the Ford Falcon EcoBoost, we spoke with John Viera, Ford's global director of sustainability and environmental matters, about making more sustainable, recyclable and efficient cars.


At the launch of the Ford Falcon EcoBoost, we spoke with John Viera, Ford's global director of sustainability and environmental matters, about making more sustainable, recyclable and efficient cars.

The thought of a 2-litre, four-cylinder Falcon, albeit in a turbocharged form, is a little mind bending, but Viera also gave frank answers about how Ford goes about making its cars easier on the environment, what car makers collaborate behind the scenes with the aim of sustainability and how much of a car is actually recyclable.

Regarding the latter, the percentage figure is higher than we expected, and what's not recycled is even more surprising. Read on to find out.

At what stage will Australia be ready for Ford's range of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars?

In terms of all three, we need to see a bigger local demand for hybrid vehicles, because they're going to be most affordable of all three. When we see the same level of market penetration here as in the US and Europe, we'll probably think that Australia's ready for plug-in vehicles.

How do you go about designing cars and car components to be more sustainable?

There are some substances that we just want to get out of the vehicles that we make, like lead and mercury, and these are the ones that we concentrate on first. The second piece of the puzzle is petroleum-based products or materials that take a lot of energy to make. A good example would be fibreglass, which we use to strengthen some of our plastics, as it takes a ton of energy to produce. So we can actually use natural fibres, like wheat straw, which is agricultural waste, instead.

Do these alternative processes or products add cost?

No, they don't, as we always substitute with something that costs the same or less. Often, we find an alternative that's more expensive; in that case, we then wait until it comes to cost parity or better. A good example is the soy foam that we use in our car seats in North America. At one point in time, when petroleum was at $60 a barrel, it didn't make sense to use soy, as it was a lot more costly. As oil prices went up, now not only is soy foam only more sustainable, but better for the bottom line.

There's constant regulatory pressure to keep improving the safety in your vehicles. Unfortunately, safety features add weight, which in turn diminishes fuel efficiency. How do you go about mitigating the increased weight from new safety tech?

There are a few common ways of doing this, like using thinner, lighter high-strength steel or using aluminium, magnesium and other lightweight materials that still meet the safety requirements but offset some of the other weight increases.

We're also focusing more on active safety features, like blind-spot monitoring, radar detection, speed control, accident avoidance and reversing sensors. That way, we don't have to do as much from a passive safety standpoint, such as add more airbags or have a bigger, heavier body structure.

Nowadays, even small and affordable cars, such as the Fiesta and the Focus, come with a lot of cabin technology features, like voice control, Bluetooth, power windows and sat nav. Do these features add a lot of weight to a modern vehicle?

I wouldn't say they add a lot of weight. In fact, some of the pieces of technology are more weight efficient than before. Two examples, the wiring in our cars is now multiplexed, reducing the amount of cabling required, and many of our gauges are now electric, rather than mechanical. Also, on many models, many stereo and climate-control features have migrated to the navigation screen.

But what about other convenience features, like heated and ventilated seats, electric adjustment for steering wheels and seating and sunroofs?

Well, with those types of physical features, yes, they do add weight. So we need to find ways of offsetting that, and I'd be disingenuous to say that we're looking to reduce those items, and it makes our net weight-reduction challenge even more difficult.

Some of the lightweight materials you've mentioned, like magnesium and aluminium, are more expensive than steel. How do you strike a balance between cost and weight?

Obviously, we want to keep the cost of our vehicle down. Thankfully, a lot of our electronics save us a lot of money. I've mentioned the wiring aspect, but over the years we've shed content like cassette decks, and the CD player will probably go the same way, too.

Another example is our climate-control system. In older vehicles, the buttons and dials had mechanical linkages that manually opened and closed vents; now, we can do a lot of that electronically. This saves us both weight and money.

I'm guessing that it's easier for you to influence what happens internally within Ford, regarding environmental controls and design. How do you go about influencing and enforcing these ideas within your supplier network?

We want our suppliers to measure and reduce their carbon footprint. We'd also like them to use less water in their facilities, because that's been a big focus for us within Ford. Where we've been really successful with suppliers is on the social side, improving working conditions and the like.

Interestingly, many of our suppliers also work with GM, Toyota, etc. So they've said to us, if you want us to improve our environmental practices, don't come to us individually; we don't want you guys asking us to measure and do things one way, and Toyota coming to us and asking us to do things in a different manner. So, we've collaborated with the other auto makers to work on metrics and so forth to make it easier on our suppliers.

In terms of environmental issues and technology, is there much collaboration between car companies? Especially right now, when electric cars and their components are expensive and the volumes are low.

There's some good collaboration, but there's still a lot of unique work. A good example of working together is in the world of hybrids. Up until now, hybrids have worked well in passenger vehicles, but in trucks and so forth with their higher payloads, they haven't performed so well. Toyota and Ford have recently come together to formally work on hybrid tech for our pick-up trucks, so that we can make the breakthrough together.

In the electric vehicle space, we're working together with all the car makers — GM, Nissan, Daimler, VW and so forth — to figure out what we'll do with all our lithium-ion batteries when they come to the end of their life.

Talking about the end of life, what percentage of a Ford vehicle is recyclable, and do you work with auto makers regarding the recycling of components?

Ninety five per cent (by weight) of our vehicles in the US and Europe can be recycled. The 5 per cent that we can't recycle is primarily glass and adhesives. Glass technically can be recycled, but the amount of energy required to break down the glass makes it impractical.

In the US, 85 per cent (by weight) is actually recycled. In the US and Canada, at least, there's actually free market demand for recycled car parts. There, we have companies that buy, shred and sell vehicles for a profit without the need for government subsidies.

What do car parts get recycled into?

Some of it goes back to the automotive sector. We at Ford use a lot of recycled materials. Metals, such as steel, aluminium and magnesium, mainly come back to the automotive sector. Any copper from our brakes or wiring can be sold on the free market quite easily.

Tyres and plastics can be reground and used again in the automobile industry. We also work with beverage companies, who can also use some of the recycled plastic.

Can you clear up a point about biofuels for us? How are they less carbon intensive? After all, you're still burning ethanol and putting carbon into the atmosphere.

Let's talk about biomass or the waste product of a crop. That would normally just decompose and go into the ground. Instead, we can transform it into a fuel via process that's not too carbon intensive. And because it's a grown plant, it's absorbing carbon as it matures. When you burn it, it emits carbon. So, when you measure the net effect, there's still extra carbon being put into the atmosphere, but it's nowhere the amount that's put into atmosphere by petroleum, from its origin at the well ,through its refining processes, all the way to when you burn it in your car.

What if you just let that waste product, say, corn, decompose; would that also put carbon into atmosphere?

Yes, it would, and if you have a large quantity you might also get methane. So there might be other greenhouse gases in that mix.

Thanks for your time today.

Great questions, and thanks for your time.