Sustainable Mobility: Startups Redefining the Lifecycle of Vehicles

By Raúl Martín Montero and Alexander Schwerdt Published on Aug. 31, 2023

Sustainability is shaping the automotive industry and shaking the basis of an industry that has yet to change its primary means of propulsion, fuel engines, in almost one century. The reconstruction of the automotive industry involves electromobility, shared mobility services, autonomous driving, and connected vehicles, among others. In recent years, the shift to electric vehicles, or EVs, is seen as a significant step toward a more sustainable future of mobility, in which original equipment manufacturers, also known as OEMs, and suppliers aim to reduce CO2 emissions to achieve a carbon-neutral-emission model.

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In this regard, the Council of the European Union introduced a regulation last March setting stricter CO2 emission performance standards for new cars and vans — road vehicles with the highest share of emissions from transport. From 2030 to 2034, under the new regulation, there is a requirement to reduce CO2 emissions by 55% for new cars and 50% for new vans. By 2035, a complete reduction of 100% is mandated. However, this scenario seems optimistic looking at the current EV sales, which comprise 12.1% of the total car market share.

Nevertheless, at present, EVs are not yet a carbon-neutral solution. Although direct propulsion emissions are indeed avoided, the entire production and supply chain is far from emitting zero emissions. There is a significant concern about component demand and extraction of elements necessary to build the composition of the batteries. Therefore, many barriers must be overcome to enable fully sustainable mobility. There is a need to integrate more sustainable innovations at different stages of a vehicle’s lifecycle, from the early stages of production to the end of life of cars.

Production — sustainable mobility lifecycle

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As the emissions during the production of EVs are double the emissions of cars with internal combustion engines, or ICEs, the emissions during the production play an increasingly crucial role in decreasing the overall lifecycle emissions.

New developments in the battery space

EV batteries play a significant role in more sustainable production. Emissions of widely used lithium-ion batteries, or LIBs, account for 40-60% of production emissions. If we summarize the current status of the battery market, the automotive industry relies on two action points to reduce CO2 emissions. The first is eliminating lithium-dependent batteries by exploring new elements, while the second is making current battery designs more efficient, cheaper, and straightforward.

Battery materials

A closer look at the first approach shows that only a few elements can behave or possess features like lithium. So far, only sodium and potassium batteries have been industrially developed. Sodium-ion batteries, also known as NIBs, have attracted much attention recently. Sodium is 1000 times more abundant than lithium, the costs of extraction and purification are far lower, and there is almost an unlimited supply of it. Moreover, it has nearly the same tendency to lose an electron as lithium, which makes it a suitable anode material. One of the disadvantages of sodium is its larger size. This blocks sodium ions from entering quickly into the holes of the electrode materials, thus leading to slower charge and discharge times. This example shows NIBs require further development. Also, in recent years potassium-ion batteries, or KIBs, have been positioned as another replacement for LIBs. KIBs have some advantages compared to both elements. However, the technology is in its infancy.

The second approach involves solutions such as the evolution of the electrodes — reducing rare elements such as Ni, Co, and Mn to more abundant as Fe — leading to LFP or Li-S batteries and the development of new anodes relying on graphene or Si-C compositions (Theion). There has been extensive research on more efficient electrolytes (Innolith) and the step ahead; solid-state batteries (Ampcera).

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AI-powered battery design

Another approach to reducing the emissions of EV batteries is a data-driven battery design. This approach is increasingly adopted and provides several advantages, such as faster development of new and more sustainable battery chemistries, improved efficiency, extended lifetime, or simplified recycling processes (about:energy, chemix, Electroder).

Due to these advances, global greenhouse gas emissions from battery production are expected to decline to 85 kg CO2e/kWh by 2025, with some players aiming to reduce the emission to 20 kg CO2e/kWh. In the future, low-carbon battery production will become an increasingly important competitive advantage that can set OEMs apart.

Sustainable mobility materials

Apart from the battery, EVs consist primarily of steel, aluminum, and plastic. These materials account for 35-50% of the emissions during the production of EVs. There are three options to reduce the emission of these materials:

  1. Green production processes: The US Government and the EU are actively advocating for adopting sustainable production processes, with a particular emphasis on the production of green steel. In this regard, green hydrogen is critical in reducing iron during steel production. (H2 Green Steel).
  2. Use of recycled materials: The use of recycled materials depends highly on how the end-of-life of products are handled. For automotive parts, recycled materials' quality must meet specific standards. Recently, this barrier has become obsolete as recycling methods have improved (UBQ Materials).
  3. Replacing these materials with bio-based materials: Bio-based materials can be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of cars. These materials can also offer other advantages, like weight reduction, which can positively influence the efficiency of vehicles (Ohoskin).

Several OEMs try to further include these technologies in production to enable carbon-free and sustainable production. For example, Polestar aims to produce its first car with carbon-neutral production by 2030.

During life — sustainable mobility lifecycle

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As the energy source substantially impacts emissions during a vehicle's lifetime, EVs offer a sustainable solution when powered by renewables. EVs and their batteries can last from 10 to 20 years. Therefore, being sustainable during these years is crucial for the automotive industry.

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G)

One perfect example is to see EVs not only as cars but also as moving batteries. Due to the shift to renewable energies, which are highly dependent on external factors, energy generation has become less predictable. Fossil energy sources are still needed to balance the differences between energy generation and demand. To mitigate this need, EV batteries can be used bi-directionally. EVs could not only receive electric energy but also return power to the electric grid, resulting in the concept of V2G (Jedlix, bloXmove).

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As cars sit parked 95% of the time, EV batteries can be used as flexible energy storage connected to the electric grid, homes, production facilities, or other places. An excellent example of this concept is the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, which aims to become the first bidirectional city in the world and has already built over 1000 bi-directional charging points in the region. Within this project, Hyundai is cooperating with a local car-sharing company and provides cars with bi-directional charging capabilities. This clearly shows that the technology itself is already available, but various actors' efforts are required to adopt it.

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Software-defined vehicle

We live in the digital and software era, and in the last few years, we have observed an evolution with the concept of a software-defined vehicle, or SDV. Traditionally, an independent electrical control unit, or ECU, controlled each car function. Due to the integration of more functionalities and, thus, more sensors, the number of ECUs has steadily increased. This led to the increased complexity of the overall system. Therefore, a change from a decentralized electrical/electronic (E/E) architecture to a more centralized E/E architecture can be seen. This development is needed to enable the processing of more data and the integration of more software solutions. The software will be the key feature that sets cars apart in the future and also offers several opportunities to increase sustainability during the lifetime of vehicles (Veecle).

Digital twins

A good example is the concept of digital twins, which have become a powerful tool to improve and make cars more efficient. However, what is a digital twin, and how is it integrated? As its name indicates, it is a non-physical copy of a physical object. This virtual element enables a real-time view of all relevant data coming from the object, allowing for replicating the system’s environment. Therefore, the strength of this tool is the simulation and validation of data from different vehicle components. Continuous monitoring offers several advantages, like predictive maintenance or the ability to update the software continuously, thereby increasing car efficiency (Newtwen, Compredict).

End of life — sustainable mobility lifecycle

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To enable a circular economy within the automotive industry, materials must be brought back to produce new products (recycled) or used for a new application at their end of life (upcycled). Innovations in digital product passports, material recycling, battery recycling, and second-life applications are needed.

Digital product passports

An essential enabler of a circular economy is consistent documentation of ownership and different product properties. Such digital passports can help recycle and reuse other automotive parts: tires, windows, EV batteries, etc. A first step towards introducing digital product passports is the development of battery passports (Circulor). These will be mandatory within the EU starting in 2026 and are currently being developed with stakeholders along the EV battery value chain. This also shows that collaboration and transparent information between stakeholders is essential to enable a circular economy within the automotive industry. This is why technologies such as blockchain that will allow tracking of the origin and the flow of materials along the production and recycling supply chains are crucial.

Material recycling

Material recycling has attracted most of the attention during the last decades when we think about sustainability. Especially in the last few years, the world has designated a lot of resources to implement new recycling plants with a great interest in the end-of-life of vehicles. A car consists of valuable raw materials, 75% metal (steel, copper, light metals, and precious metals), besides glass, tires, and other plastics. The possibility of reusing these materials hides an enormous potential. In this sense, some established companies are working on new dismantling technologies that allow the separation of complex parts. At the same time, startups are developing new separation methods and technologies to facilitate this process (Saperatec). The ultimate goal is the creation of digital platforms or marketplaces where different OEMs, suppliers, and startups can work together to enable the recycling of vehicles and, thus, a circular economy.

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Is there a sustainable end of life for EV batteries?

Due to the shift to EVs, the question of what to do with EV batteries at their end of life has become increasingly important. There are two options to enable sustainable end-of-life for batteries: battery recycling or second-life applications.

Battery recycling

Batteries play a vital role in the recycling process. The arduous and costly endeavor of mining and extracting elements and the challenges throughout the supply chain underscore the need for a circular approach to battery management. Upon this situation, the EU parliament approved in June 2023 new rules to make batteries more durable and sustainable. Among many of the new regulations of this new law, it's worth it to highlight the minimum levels of materials recovered from waste batteries: lithium – 50% (2027); 80% (2031), and for cobalt, copper, lead, and nickel – 90% (2027); 95% (2031). Therefore, innovative solutions must be created to solve these challenges as stricter regulations appear. We also had a recent fireside chat on developing an EV battery circular model with Kei Morita, General Manager at ENEOS Americas, and Edward Chiang, Co-Founder and CEO at Moment Energy, so be sure to check out their discussion below.

Currently, every battery's recycling pathway is the following: The battery arrives at the facility and gets charged and discharged. It might be used as a stationary energy storage for a second-life application if it performs well. If not, two battery recycling technology pathways are most commonly used:

  1. The battery is shredded and followed by thermal treatment to remove the organic solvent. Then the components are dismantled, the metal elements are reduced, and the hydrometallurgical processing is carried out.
  2. Pyrometallurgical processing can typically operate as a robust process with very high nickel, cobalt, and copper recovery rates. Yet, it yields lower total material recoveries than mechanical pretreatment and hydrometallurgical processing.

Zooming out, there is plenty of space for further innovations in battery recycling, which needs to focus on increasing material recovery rates, decreasing energy and reagent consumption, and decreasing emissions and wastewater. A great example of new technologies in this space is automated robotic solutions to enable the direct recycling of battery cells (The Battery Recycling Company, Circu Li-ion).

Second life applications

Another option for the end-of-life of batteries is second-life applications. As EV batteries still have around 80% of their initial capacity at their end of life, they can still be used as stationary energy storage or as charge delivery on demand, a new EV charging paradigm (Reefilla). These are increasingly needed to further integrate renewable energy sources into the electric grid by balancing out energy supply and demand (BeePlanet, Voltfang).

Currently, there is only a small market for used EV batteries. This is likely to change as many EVs will reach their end of life in upcoming years. By 2030, the available capacity of used EV batteries for second-life applications is expected to reach 275 GWh annually. Several OEMs (e.g., Mercedes-Benz) are partnering up with second-life energy storage operators, which underlines the importance of this technology in the future.

Key takeaways for sustainable mobility

In light of all the sustainability trends reviewed for all the different stages of the lifecycle of a car, it is clear that all of these trends are deeply interconnected and dependent on each other. For example, during the design and production of vehicles, manufacturers already have to consider how different automotive parts come together and how these can be best dismantled and recycled at the end of life. Therefore, a sustainability-first mindset has to be adopted by the engineers and R&D teams at all times.

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Another key takeaway is that one player can’t achieve sustainability alone. Collaboration between different stakeholders — corporations, startups, research institutions, and government agencies — is needed to thrive and successfully implement sustainable innovations. Although there is still a long way to go until we reach a carbon-neutral automotive industry, significant advances of major stakeholders can already be seen in the market today.

At STARTUP AUTOBAHN powered by Plug and Play, the largest mobility-focused open innovation platform, we have worked relentlessly over the past seven years to introduce novel technologies into production and enable a circular economy within the automotive industry. If you want to explore the latest sustainability innovations that our mobility corporate partners have worked on, check out ourEXPO2023 website.

List of startups

  1. Theion: Designs and produces sulfur-crystal batteries for applications from stationary storage, aerospace, portable devices, and wearables to vehicles on land, sea, and in the air.
  2. Innolith: A battery technology company pioneering an inorganic battery technology, ready to free e-mobility.
  3. Ampcera: An innovator and market leader in developing and commercializing solid-state electrolyte and battery technologies.
  4. About:Energy: Focuses on building a portfolio of battery measurement and modeling capabilities to deliver a comprehensive software solution for battery design.
  5. chemix: Accelerating the development of the most sustainable battery chemistry by first eliminating the use of cobalt and ultimately the reliance on nickel and lithium — all without compromising vehicle performance.
  6. Electroder: An independent cell designer that provides engineering services that deliver new or optimized battery designs for their clients globally.
  7. H2 Green Steel: Committed to accelerating industry change by eliminating almost all CO2 emissions from the steel-making process.
  8. UBQ Materials: The UBQ proprietary process converts residual municipal solid waste destined for landfills into novel bio-based UBQ material that can be used to make everyday durable products — with a reduced carbon footprint.
  9. Ohoskin: An innovative startup founded in 2019 that patented and creates sustainable, vegan, made-in-Italy luxury leather alternatives made with bioproducts.
  10. Jedlix: Develops and operates a vehicle-to-grid integration (VGI) platform to optimize the charging and discharging of electric vehicles and facilitate their insertion into the power grid at scale.
  11. bloXmove: Provide a seamless mobility blockchain platform for urban mobility by building an ecosystem built on alliances.
  12. Veecle: Provides a software framework that reduces the complexity and the cost of developing vehicles and enables an app-based ecosystem for mobility.
  13. NEWTWEN: Has the goal of accelerating the large-scale deployment of digital twin technology in the automotive and automation industry.
  14. Compredict: Purely software-based virtual sensors (no additional sensors) that use AI to predict and understand failures of automotive components.
  15. Circulor: Using blockchain, IoT, and AI to bring transparency to materials supply chains. The Circulor platform tracks raw materials from source to finished product, helping manufacturers and suppliers build a sustainable future.
  16. Saperatec: Offers an entirely new way to separate composite materials and thus recover clean and valuable secondary raw materials. They close the materials cycle and simultaneously generate a significant added value in converting waste to useful materials.
  17. The Battery Recycling Company: A deep tech startup aiming to build the world’s first carbon-negative closed-loop battery recycling system — enabling the re-use of upward of 95% of materials currently used in lithium-ion batteries.
  18. Circu Li-ion: An automated battery upcycling process that sets a new technological and ecological standard: enabling an economical second life for all batteries.
  19. Reefilla: Offers an innovative alternative to the current charging infrastructure for electrified mobility. The team is tackling the challenges through an ecosystem of advanced charging devices and their IoT cloud platform.
  20. BeePlanet: Develops technological projects based on reusing batteries removed from electric cars.
  21. Voltfang: Develops comprehensive home energy storage solutions for private households using pre-owned car batteries in the spirit of a second life strategy.