STOCKHOLM — This week, Volvo unveiled its new flagship electric vehicle, the EX90 three-row SUV. It’s not just a look at a product we’ll see come to market in 2024, but a glimpse at the approach Volvo is taking to become more sustainable as it aims to go all-electric by 2030 and carbon-neutral by 2040. After the unveiling of the EX90, we had the opportunity to speak with Henrik Green, Volvo’s advanced technology and sustainability officer, as part of a roundtable discussion about the brand’s climate strategy moving forward.
Part of the strategy is accountability and transparency. In an industry where sensitive materials like cobalt and lithium can be environmentally, socially and geopolitically problematic, traceability is paramount. Volvo will use blockchain technology — the same sort of secure ledger tech that makes cryptocurrency possible — to trace cobalt, lithium and nickel from their very origins in the earth all the way to the EX90s that roll off the factory floor. Green said he expects that traceability to expand to more materials, but those three are what Volvo can commit to today. Green also predicts a time when “you as a consumer should be able to see, ‘Here, in my app, this is the car I bought, this is where my nickel came from that’s in my car.’”
While step one is improving transparency, “the next step is — this is much more long-term — how can we affect the industry to source from the most sustainable sources as possible?” And that leads us to recycling. A circular economy is the goal, where raw materials are used minimally, replaced by materials sourced from old cars, batteries, electronics and the like. But that depends on the first generations of electric cars fulfilling their lifecycles before they can be recycled. And obviously the better the longevity of products like batteries, the longer this will take. “Unfortunately, it has this built-in time lag of putting batteries out there that live until they need to be replaced, and then we will get the material back.”
Partners are beginning to scout for those recyclable materials from sources like non-automotive electronics, “but the massive volume of car batteries will not be accessible until these cars have been on the road 10, 15 or more years.” But recyclability is one of the main factors Volvo looks for when partnering with companies like Northvolt, with whom Volvo is building a factory and R&D center in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Recycling is not just about batteries, though. The EX90 is Volvo’s most recycled car to date. 15% of the plastics are recycled, as is 15% of the steel and 25% of the aluminum. Volvo aims to expand that to 25% of plastics, 25% of steel and 40% of aluminum in its cars by 2025, and significantly more than that by its 2040 climate-neutrality target date. And Volvo is working toward making its cars not just more recycled, but more recyclable, so it can use more of its own materials in that circular production process. “The difficult part of that is to take it apart, and sort it into monomaterial bins” for recycling, Green said. “I foresee in the long term, here, we will engineer cars where it’s easier to disassemble and sort them in pure material boxes. That way we can really get the circular economy and circular business going.”
And when something is difficult to recycle, like plastic, Volvo is looking to increase its use of bio-based materials, which are part of the EX90. The designers are the driving force, Green said, behind moving away from materials like leather and virgin plastics to include recycled, bio-based and natural materials. For example, the EX90’s Nordico upholstery is made from recycled materials like plastic bottles, and wool seating is also an option. The wood in the vehicle is sourced from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
In terms of manufacturing, Volvo is working quickly toward achieving climate neutrality there, too. While Volvo can easily control its own operations, Green says the next step is the supply chain. “That’s where we’re actually working the hardest,” getting the tier-one, tier-two, etc., suppliers all running on climate-neutral electricity. Volvo wants to reduce its carbon footprint from its supply chain, as well as its internal operations, by 25% come mid-decade. He admits this is a big challenge that goes with going electric, as producing batteries is carbon-intensive. “So you first build that burden up, and then you need to reduce [it].”
Thankfully, suppliers are getting on program, and Volvo is seeing less pushback and more cooperation from them in aligning with its climate goals. But for those dragging their feet, Green said, “we have a very strong message, and partly we say it here [to the media] and we say it to the world, so it becomes obvious also in the discussions with the suppliers.” Volvo has also implemented internal carbon pricing, wherein a ton of carbon dioxide costs 1,000 SEK (about $96), which it can factor into business discussions. “When you do you do your business comparison, you can say that this ton of CO2 is 1,000 SEK, here is the cost of poor quality, here is the cost for the part,” to help find a balanced, final cost. Volvo implemented that carbon price about a year ago, but Green would like to see it increase.
Another sustainability strategy Volvo is pursuing is becoming increasingly familiar: bidirectional charging. This allows the vehicle to not just charge its battery pack for driving duties, but for home backup power, remote power and grid stabilization. Volvo announced its EX90 would be its first product capable of bidirectional charging. The whole strategy is still “in the making,” but Volvo would offer a wallbox for home energy storage, and customers could get total pricing for home energy products and installation from a Volvo dealer or website, which would then be provided by Volvo’s partners.
Eventually, Green said, “you can really optimize a city or a society if you” collaborate with energy providers. While renewable energy sources like solar and wind are intermittent, thousands of connected batteries can balance the grid when those sources aren’t providing. “It’s a bit futuristic … but my personal view is that cars can become that resource that helps the world power on less-stable electricity sources, which are sustainable. We have built into the EX90 the bidirectional charging with that purpose in mind.”