Driving sustainability in the automotive industry

As the automotive industry strives to do more to reduce emissions, electric vehicles, new models of mobility and a more open approach to data are powerful tools to help meet the challenge

Sanjay Ravi
By Sanjay Ravi on 10 December 2020
Driving sustainability in the automotive industry

Sustainability is an important priority for society, and one which Microsoft takes very seriously. We announced in January that we will be going carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 we aim to have removed from the environment all of the carbon we have emitted since the company was founded in 1975. 

We’ve backed up this commitment with the launch of our Climate Innovation Fund. The fund is investing $1 billion over the next four years in new technologies and innovative sustainability solutions, backing others so that they can be successful in their sustainability journey. We’ve also joined nine other organisations to become a founder member of the Transform to Net Zero initiative, which aims to deliver guidance and business plans to enable a transformation in the private sector to net zero emissions.

How can these goals practically be achieved in automotive – an industry often criticised, fairly or unfairly, for being amongst the larger polluters? In reality, there have been substantial reductions in the emissions of internal combustion engine vehicles over the last decades, due to the efforts that the industry has made itself and assisted by government legislation. Nevertheless, there is continuing pressure on the industry to improve.

This is one of the reasons that we’re seeing a significant shift towards electric vehicle platforms. While not all the problems of electrification at scale have been solved, we’re now at the point where electric cars are practical, and improvements are being made towards making electric trucks and buses viable. 

Another way in which the industry can drive sustainability is by shifting towards new, technology­driven models of mobility as a service and shifting away from traditional car ownership, with the ultimate goals of reducing the number of vehicle-miles driven and increasing the effective utilisation of every vehicle produced. Original equipment manufacturers are on a trajectory towards becoming providers of fleets of vehicles for transportation and freight services, and this could be hugely significant if positioned responsibly. By using real time signals of actual demand, mobility providers could begin to utilise their capacity in more efficient ways. 

One of the examples in which this approach could be effective is in the movement of freight. Currently, a customer might agree to use a single trucking service, and therefore require their trucks to carry the entire load. As a result, these movements will be done in parallel to those from other competing services while both have a significant percentage of their total capacity left, meaning that there are more vehicles on the road than there needs to be. If, however, we were to use data systems to coordinate freight movements, we could split the load between trucks to make the best use of their capacity. This would mean that less trucks would be required, removing the extra costs, congestion and emissions that they would have created. 

Another example would be in a city. If mobility service providers and taxis – both of whom will often pre-position vehicles based on forecasted demand or even local driver knowledge in travel nexuses like rail stations and airports – had access to pooled data of total historic and actual real-time demand, and further had this enhanced with updated information on train/plane arrivals, congestion can be avoided, dead time for drivers can be minimised, and arrivals even sequenced to coordinate with passenger need. Ultimately that converges on a vision often described as an ‘intelligent transportation system’ that would seek to optimise sustainability, economic viability and passenger experience concurrently.

However, none of this can happen without data being shared. Mobility systems such as these are data-driven, and access to that data needs to be open if they are going to be realised. At Microsoft, we see the equitable sharing of data as being a fundamental societal need, which is why we’ve launched the Open Data Campaign. Rather than allowing data to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of larger companies, we want to help close the data divide so more organisations can realise the benefits of the new technologies it is powering. 

Microsoft is committing to build deep collaborations with others from across industry, government and civil society. In the automotive industry, we are closely working with our partners and business consortia to help set standards to guide data sharing. For example, we have partnered with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in their Transforming Urban Mobility project, helping to define a set of data sharing principles that will enable the move towards intelligent mobility systems. With a more open, equitable approach to data, we believe that everyone can begin to make better decisions, improve efficiency and tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including sustainability. 

Sanjay Ravi is general manager of automotive industry at Microsoft

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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