By Debbie Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader, Materials Sustainability, Ford Motor Company
A lot of people are familiar with soy – tens of millions of consumers eat and drink it every day. But what might come as a surprise is that many of us actually sit on recycled soy all of the time.
This year marks 10 years since Ford first used soybean-based foam in the 2008 Mustang, and since 2011, it’s been a key material used in the seat cushions, seat backs and headrests of every vehicle we build in North America.
Now, 18.5 million-plus vehicles and half a trillion soybeans later, we’ve saved more than 228 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. This is the same amount that would be consumed by 4 million trees per year, according to North Carolina State University.
The innovative use of soy foam as a plant-based alternative to traditional petroleum-based products is what inspired us to adopt it in 2007 – bringing key sustainability benefits to our vehicles without compromising durability or performance.
We can credit our company founder Henry Ford with the idea of incorporating biomaterials back in the 1940s, so for us, continuing to implement his vision is the right thing to do. The research and testing of renewable, plant-based alternatives to petroleum-derived plastics has been my life’s work since 2000, and I’m proud to be able to continue the vision of Henry Ford.
But just bringing the idea to market in the first place was a real challenge. Those first foams, frankly, were terrible! They met none of the rigorous requirements of automotive seating. Early trials failed to meet durability standards for seat cushions, which need to rebound for the equivalent of 15 years. Not to mention, the soy and petroleum materials separated, and the soy foam didn’t smell very good. So we set out to painstakingly explore how to improve the formulations, rebalance the chemistries and remove odorous compounds.
Just 10 years ago, the world was a different place. A newly invented iPhone was about to launch, George W. Bush was president of the United States, and oil prices were low – $40 a barrel. Not many saw financial gain in being green at the time, so convincing suppliers that soy foam was the material of the future wasn’t easy, either.
In those early days, we relied on a combination of things, including support from the United Soybean Board in funding some initial trials, as well as the personal vision and crucial endorsement of Bill Ford, then CEO. We needed him firmly in the driver’s seat and he absolutely was, ensuring the project stayed on track.
In 2008, when oil prices skyrocketed, the value of soy foam became suddenly obvious. Not only was replacing petroleum-based polyol good for the environment, it was good for business. We’d been doing our homework, so Ford was ready.
We were eager to share the potential for soy foam and boost sustainable applications of it wherever possible, so we worked tirelessly with other industries – agriculture, furniture and home goods – to help them formulate foams specific to their needs as well.
Building on our success with soy foam, we began to develop other renewable materials to incorporate into our vehicles, which in turn further helped us reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, the material allowed for weight reductions as well, leading to improved fuel economy for many of our vehicles.
Of course, our work implementing biomaterials into our vehicles has not been accomplished overnight. We are proud to now feature eight sustainable materials in our production vehicles – soy, wheat, rice, castor, kenaf (hibiscus), tree cellulose, jute and coconut. As we continue to experiment, the list of renewable resources we are researching reads like an entire farm – wheat straw, tomato peel, bamboo, agave fiber, dandelions, even algae!
We’re also exploring innovative uses of carbon itself, and are first in the industry to develop foams and plastics using captured carbon dioxide. This is the type of innovative work I’m proud to say my team does every single day at Ford.
A decade on, we continue to collaborate with the United Soybean Board to develop soy-based materials for rubber components like gaskets, seals and wiper blades. Today, our use of soy foam looks like a landmark first step. Bill Ford maintains we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Many opportunities remain available for us to explore in pursuit of our sustainability goals. We continue to make progress across our business, as highlighted in our 18th annual Sustainability Report – whether that’s trailblazing with our industry-leading commitments on water security, building on our achievements for true zero-waste-to-landfill facilities, or investing in scrappage programs to improve air quality.
Soy was our introduction to sustainable materials. Now, the next 10 years promise even more radical research and revolutionary innovation, underpinned by responsible investment and pioneering vision. We need to embrace the vast host of materials Mother Nature gives us, and employ them to their best advantage. This includes using locally sourced plants and crop waste where we assemble our vehicles, something with the potential to further reduce shipping emissions and provide area farmers with new revenue streams. I think all of this would make Henry Ford very proud.
Ford intends to remain the industry leader in the use of sustainable materials as we move into a future that’s guaranteed to be exciting. We’ve learned a lot over the past decade-plus. Most importantly, we’ve learned we can provide the world with a host of alternative material choices that have less impact on the environment. I always say I have the best job in the world in that I’m fortunate to work for a company that supports out-of-the-box thinking.
While Henry Ford never used the word “sustainability,” the founder of Ford Motor Company believed in its ethos.
Abhorring waste of any kind, he strived to attain self-sufficiency in manufacturing. He even pioneered experimenting with renewable materials such as soybeans — which the company uses as foam in all of its North American vehicles.
“Throughout the years, Ford has adapted to incorporate sustainability across its business globally,” said Kim Pittel, vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering at Ford, discussing a recent GreenBiz webinar sponsored by the American automaker.
This includes implementing processes that reduce carbon emissions, waste, water and energy use in facilities, incorporating recycled and renewable materials into its products and social responsibility in the supply chain.
The shift in corporate strategy is indicative of a much wider recalibration happening in the world of automotive manufacturing.
General Motors and Mercedes-Benz are both betting big on shared rides and shared cars, investing in or acquiring high profile startups in the space. Volkswagen, meanwhile, is still attempting to recover from its notorious emissions cheating scandal.
In response to evolving sustainbility challenges, Ford also recently decided change gears and redefine its focus, describing itself in marketing materials as an auto and mobility company.
“Ford is focused on using technology to find mobility solutions today to help make the world better for tomorrow,” said Pittel. “The company’s evolution is driving innovation in every part of its business as it focuses on how to best navigate global issues such as climate change, supply chain sustainability and human rights.”
A three-pronged approach to sustainability
Ford takes a three-pronged, integrated approach to sustainability, which spans social, environmental and economic components — an increasingly common corporate strategy as the disparate impacts of climate and environmental issues become more well established in the mainstream business world.
Dubbed “Going Further — The Right Way,” Ford’s sustainability strategy sets and works toward stretch targets to embrace opportunities that may arise from pressure to cut emissions or curb waste in the manufacturing process.
With vehicle manufacturing, for example, Ford has doubled down on ethical materials sourcing and sustainable materials development, along with zero-waste initiatives and closed-loop manufacturing. Likewise, the company recently announced a $4.5 billion investment in its electrification program, expected to result in 13 new electric vehicles to our lineup by 2020.
Auto sustainability beyond EVs
One result of Ford’s investment in corporate responsibility is Project Better World, a program that provides vehicles and services that meet the mobility needs of underserved communities. The initiative focuses on helping to bring access to medical care and supplies in rural Africa, as well as mapping remote areas and providing internet and connectivity in areas not currently covered.
“Project Better World is pilot program in South Africa and Nigeria, which unites multiple organizations to deliver goods and services to underserved communities using enhanced mobility and connectivity innovations,” said Pittel.
In South Africa, for example, specially equipped Ford Rangers will deliver health education, medicine and nutrition for 20,000 children and 10,000 adults.
Through its Nigerian partner, Riders for Health, donated funds and Ford Rangers will help train technicians to maintain vehicles to ensure medical professionals and supplies reach people in rural areas.
“Ensuring access to medical help is a key component of Ford’s vision for a sustainable future, moving beyond the environmental aspect of sustainability and fully incorporating social good as a pivotal value,” said Pittel.
Ford has installed a Ford OpenXC software analytics device in each Ford Ranger, which are referred to as flexible response vehicles, to collect location information, fuel economy, vehicle performance metrics and other important data that will be stored in Ford servers and shared with partners that leverage the vehicle’s services.
“We look forward to testing out new ways to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the vehicle and the services it provides through apps and algorithms currently in development,” said Pittel.
The key performance indicators for Project Better World differ for each pilot. Priorities for future project endeavors include monitoring and evaluation, bandwidth and connectivity, cold chains, reciprocal value and remote data collection.
Ford is taking a joined-up approach to examining the issues of future individual mobility, assessing the benefits of active safety and fully autonomous driving systems and understanding how systems can work together for the greater good.
At the 2015 International CES where the company’s CEO Mark Fields gave a keynote address, rather than simply promoting its latest in-car technology, Fields talked about innovation with a higher purpose and detailed 25 different global mobility experiments the company is currently undertaking to understand what the transport ecosystem of tomorrow will look like.
“Even as we showcase connected cars and share our plans for autonomous vehicles, we are here at CES with a higher purpose,” said Ford President and CEO Mark Fields. “We are driving innovation in every part of our business to be both a product and mobility company — and, ultimately, to change the way the world moves just as our founder Henry Ford did 111 years ago.”
Under the unifying banner of Ford Smart Mobility, the experiments — eight in North America, nine in Europe and Africa, seven in Asia and one in South America — are attempting to understand four global mega-trends: exploding population growth; an expanding middle-class; air quality and public health concerns; and changing consumer priorities in terms of urban living and mobility.
“We see a world where vehicles talk to one another, drivers and vehicles communicate with the city infrastructure to relieve congestion, and people routinely share vehicles or multiple forms of transportation for their daily commute,” Fields said. “The experiments we’re undertaking today will lead to an all-new model of transportation and mobility within the next 10 years and beyond.”
In 11 of the experiments, Ford invited developers and innovators from around the world to try and solve a specific mobility problem; for example, identifying available parking spaces in city centres or the use of navigation systems to help people gain healthcare access in remote regions.
As for self-driving cars, Ford confirmed that it is taking the concept very seriously with the ultimate aim of bringing an autonomous car to market that is affordable: “Our priority is not in making marketing claims or being in a race for the first autonomous car on the road,” Fields said. “Our priority is in making the first Ford autonomous vehicle accessible to the masses and truly enhancing customers’ lives.
Ford has a fully autonomous research vehicle that is currently being put through testing which, according to the company’s chief technical officer and group vice president, Global Product Development, Raj Nair, builds on technologies already available on Ford’s latest cars, such as pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control.
“We’re already manufacturing and selling semi-autonomous vehicles that use software and sensors to steer into both parallel and perpendicular parking spaces, adjust speed based on traffic flow or apply the brakes in an emergency,” Nair said. “There will be a Ford autonomous vehicle in the future, and we take putting one on the road very seriously.”
Image: Ford CEO Mark Fields. Credit: AFP-Relaxnews