Car Culture: Sustainability or Scrap

A weekly look at what sucks in the our car world, and some good bits


BMW’s i3 – the sustainable electric car

Car makers are lobbying the UK government again with the insistence of a starving calf nudging a dry cow for milk. They are restarting production ignoring a huge backlog to sell. They are desperate to find ways of cutting their costs by any means but not to make their cars last longer or cheaper.

Following the basic rule of capitalism, car makers cut their costs by sacking workers. Then they stick their manufacturing costs onto the buyer as far as they can manage, while they pocket the profit. Cutting the cost of the car by using new environmentally friendly materials is beyond their comprehension.

A soon as England’s march to Brexit began the car makers pleaded to be exempt from import duties, no tariffs in any direction, massive grants (welfare payments to you and me), and lately asking for a scrappage scheme. There is talk of offering drivers discounts of up to £6000 to switch from petrol and diesel to electric or hybrid cars – and research shows that nearly a third of buyers are delaying plans to buy a new car until such a scheme is announced.

Pick up a car magazine and it will have an article detailing such a scrappage scheme. Pick up another car magazine and it will have an article dismissing a scrappage scheme. Those in favour say Aye. Those against say No. The No’s have it. The No’s have it. Unlock! Will the UK Treasury throw money at buyers after funding billions on beating a pandemic shut-down? Highly doubtful. We have a far-right capitalist government in power in London. If it has money to offer it will go straight to the car manufacturers.

With the notable exception of the shift to digital dash instrumentation and electric cars, very little has altered in materials that goes into making the car we buy today. The clever Smart Car appeared in the mid-Nineties. With it’s tough safety cage enveloping the occupants and plastic body panels that can be exchanged for new in the event of a crash or a desire for a new colour, panels that won’t rust, it showed the way forward. We have to jump to 2011 for BMW’s mould-breaking i3 to see a shaky advance on the Smart Car.

BMW i3 is the first BMW in which the entire outer skin is, like the Smart Car, made of plastic. Only the roof is made of recycled carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP). The parts are by half lighter than steel and at the same time a corrosion-free surface protection, which can be produced energy-saving. The material is also insensitive to minor damage. (My Smart once took a 30 mph hit from the rear and  showed no damage.) 25 percent of the materials used for the thermoplastic outer parts of the BMW i3 are either recycled or made from renewable resources.

When painting the outer skin panels shine and resistance to environmental influences. The paint passes through dry separation without the waste of water and with only a quarter of the usual energy expenditure. In addition, 70 percent less water is needed because the body no longer requires protection against corrosion during the laborious painting process. Eliminating the conventional cathodic painting saves 10 kg weight.

Car makers could have produced a car decades ago that would last as long as the vintage cars of old, twenty, even thirty years with a few upgrades, had they designed them to last, but instead they designed them to fall out of warranty after two years. Then rust set in.

On the other hand, the BMW i3 aims for durability and sustainability. The few areas where leather is used is 100% tanned with natural extracts of olive leaves. Sounds like a face rejuvenating lotion, I know, though it has genuine advantages: olive leaves are otherwise just a by-product of olive farming. BMW puts them to good use. The tanning process itself is environmentally compatible and, last but not least, it preserves the intrinsic shine of the leather and its natural ability to regulate temperatures.

Where wood is used in interior trim, ash and beech are ditched in place of eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is naturally resistant to moisture. That means it needs around 90 % less surface finishing than more traditional types of wood. Processed without chemicals, the soft texture and natural open pores of the wood remain intact. Eucalypti are one of the fastest-growing species of tree in existence, which makes it ideal for series production. If you specify wood in the BMW i3 it’s sourced from 100% FSC-certified forestry, (Forest Stewardship Council) helping to safeguard sustainable forest management.

The seats in the BMW i3 are 40% pure wool, a renewable material that offers a high level of comfort. The wool blend is breathable, helping to regulate the temperature between the seat cover and the occupant. As a result, the seats remain pleasantly cool, even on hot days. Using kenaf – a fibre material close to jute – for larger interior surfaces allows BMW to dump petroleum-based plastics and reduce the overall weight of the BMW i3. Kenaf fibres are up to 30 % lighter than conventional materials. This extremely lightweight material is extracted from the mallow plant, which converts an above-average volume of CO2 to oxygen as it grows. These are all steps in the right direction.

Sustainability or scrappage? Both are expensive. Both ask us to buy new, both has us pay through the nose, but so far the BMW i3 is the only 4-seat vehicle that gives us a truly contemporary, environmentally conscious car to drive.

Speaking recently, Volkswagen sales boss Jürgen Stackmann said that the “automotive industry can be a powerful driver to help boost the economy”. So can buying food. He then let us know electric vehicles are not the priority for the industry. Selling what they are tooled up to make is the priority. He added that any incentive scheme should not be focused purely on electric vehicles because of their relatively low sales. How’s that for clever thinking? I had a look at VW’s much trumpeted new iD car, £36,000 before government subsidy, and whilst it’s reasonably refined as electric cars go, it is hard to see what is innovative about the way it is built. Anyhow, you won’t see one until September and probably left-hand drive.

A poll conducted for What Car? magazine’s shows 29% of us are patiently delaying plans to buy a new car post-lock-down in the hope of a taxpayer-backed scrappage scheme, and 25% are prepared to downsize. I’d like to see a scrappage scheme get rid of the high-emission vehicles first, but other than the BMW i3, I am still looking for that elusive revolution in car design and materials.

Don’t believe me? Look at any bays full of nice shiny new metal. You’ll pick out perhaps three you recognise immediately, the rest are ugly styling exercises, nothing more. 


That two metre gap

Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, one of the many disgraced politicians rehabilitated by the Tory party to fit in comfortably to Boris’ cabinet, says public transport means empty seats so walking and cycling should be the “natural first choice”. The power elite will stick to their mega-expansive supercars, chauffeured limousines aircraft and boats. In fact, Lord Sugar – did he never think to change his surname to Tate or Lyle? – has just taken possession of his new small business plane. There you go, plebs.

Cars are us

Cycling? I’ve thought about it to help strengthen limbs, but in Edinburgh it’s a sucker’s transport. Hills, exhaust fumes, cold and rain, wet derrieres from rear wheels without a mudguard, near misses from errant drivers, and no matter how courteous you are as a cyclist, motorists still think you are a fascist bastard. Green campaigners are right that we should drive less, particularly in cities, where congestion and pollution are serious problems and cars take up a lot of space. With public transport certain to retain the two metre rule, Uber taxis are not a good choice, (lack of a dividing screen between you and driver), buses problematic and train journeys a worry, more people are likely to use their cars to get to and from work. With 68% of people driving to work even before the pandemic, cars are not going away. Got it?

Hateful June

By some stupid reason I’ve organise June as the month my two cars need taxed, MOT’d, a full service, plus any repairs. That’s a big hit in one go. Don’t know how I managed that, but earning less and less with a pandemic lock-down keeping income to a trickle, maybe an electric bike is a good choice after all. One shot by me today as I drove home. It took a good few minutes to understand how the guy kept ahead of me, and without pedalling. Mind you, not anymore exercise in that arrangement against drive a car.

Happy motoring!





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8 Responses to Car Culture: Sustainability or Scrap

  1. johncmblair says:

    Don’t really understand your point about eBikes (pedelecs). You have to pedal like any other bike, otherwise the motor just stops. Good assist on hills though, and in a headwind. Legally the motor cuts out at 25km/hr or it would be taxed and insured like a moped. For an old asthmatic ex-cyclist like me it’s a godsend. Mind you the bike itself is twice the weight of an ordinary bike so if it was totally flat and windless nobody would need them.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    I followed him for about a mile at just under 30mph, John. He did not pedal once. When he shifted into a parallel road I spotted the bike was electric. I supposed he was using up what juice was left to reach his house.

  3. johncmblair says:

    That would be what’s called an S-Pedelec then (I’ve never seen one). But effectively a moped.You’d have to pedal like buggery to achieve 30 mph on an eBike like mine 😂 It does have 4 assist levels mind but you still need to pedal.

  4. broonpot says:

    A somewhat bizarre but enjoyable read about the technical and environmental attributes of the BMW i3 which I regard as the ugliest car they have ever produced.
    I’m not waiting for a scrappage scheme just an aesthetically pleasing electric BMW. 🙂

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    S-Pedelec? I think I spotted a motor hub on the rear wheel, but as I came alongside him I also saw a battery facility on the frame..

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    The model in the photograph is the concept. Foe some reason BMW ditched the hip line for drop rear side windows. Odd, because big windows add weight. The car works best in dark colours unifying its lines, all-black best. Two tone exaggerates the awkward bits.

  7. johncmblair says:

    Ha, this is a learning experience for me too…
    I had to do some more digging.There are actually 3 types of ‘electric bike’ and the terms are often confused.

    1) Pedelec (pedal assist). Like mine and every other one I’ve seen. Maximum power 250w and the motor cuts out at 25km/hr.
    There’s a wee display on mine which shows how much help you are getting, often only 10-15% in Eco mode but much higher in the other 3 modes.
    Classed as a bike so can be used on cycle paths.

    2) S-Pedelec (speed-pedelec). Like before but motor works up to 45 km/hr. Max power 500w, should only be used on roads and requires insurance.

    3) e-Bike. Can be used either with pedalling or ‘power on demand’. Has a throttle.

    All of these will look similar. Cheaper bikes tend to have the motor in the rear hub, and better ones in the cranks.
    I doubt you’ll see anything other than type 1 in the average bike shop. Sounds like you saw a type 3 but as you say it won’t give you much exercise.
    Before I bought mine I tried a friend’s pedelec which actually had a twist grip throttle just to get you moving off. But the law has changed now so these aren’t fitted now.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    Good info, thanks, John. As I drew alongside him I might have slowed to 25mph to have a look at what was propelling him, but sure as hell he was not pedalling. 🙂

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