The eternal automobile

By Kay Dohnke
Electric vehicles show unexpected potential for long life. That’s reason enough to implement new concepts for a significant extension of their service life – for environmental as well as economic reasons. Initial ideas on the road toward the “eternity automobile” already exist.
© urfinguss (iStock)

The journey of the automobile into a more environmentally focused future started in 1976. Apocalyptically appearing panoramas of Los Angeles that was suffocating from smog led to the rollout of the catalytic converter in California – the first in a long series of technical measures taken by the auto industry to reduce the environmental burden caused by motor vehicles. Many innovations – engines became cleaner, the weight of vehicles was reduced, start-stop systems avoided unnecessary exhaust emissions – helped reduce the emissions burden.

Yet with the currently accelerating central paradigm shift – the transition from internal combustion (IC) engines to electric motors – other emissions than exhaust emissions and environmental burdens of motor vehicles have been moving into focus: the environmental lifetime footprint of a vehicle that considers not only its utilization but its entire lifecycle from raw material extraction to manufacturing to scrapping or reuse.

Such a more comprehensive environmental view of motor vehicles is indispensable, because by now there’s more at stake – the big picture, the future viability of motorized personal transportation in an increasingly burdened world for which there are hardly any alternatives in vast regions of the globe.

Electric cars with unexpected marathon skills

Although a growing number of automobiles are successfully fed into the circular economy today there’s an increasing disparity between the energy and material input required for manufacturing vehicles and the length of their service life. In Germany, for instance, the average service life of a car is 11.3 years. That means that the service life of automobiles has slightly increased in recent years but it’s still obvious that this technically complex product is destroyed far too soon.

The current shift in powertrain technology might change that because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that electric vehicles have an unexpectedly large potential for long life. Electric motors and traction batteries are already proving to be significantly more durable than many other vehicle components. That’s exactly where refurbishing, i.e., the renewal of wearing components for instance in the suspension or driveline, comes in so that all parts of a vehicle are provided with near-similar service life potential.

“I expect us having to live off the material that’s in the system more than we did in the past.”

Jens Schüler, Schaeffler’s Automotive Aftermarket CEO

In fact, initial farsighted pioneers have discovered the potential of electric vehicles as “eternity automobiles.” A student group in Eindhoven developed “Eterna” and the Aachen-based innovation hotbed of Professor Günther Schuh, the “father” of the “streetscooter” that’s widely known due to its use by the postal service and a small car called “eGo”, has developed a concept called “e.Volution.” Common to both projects is a reversal of perspectives: instead of putting the still usable components out of service (i.e., recycle them) when the weakest parts fail, the most durable part defines the maximum service life and the wearing components are replaced at regular intervals. It’s safe to assume that a car with an electric motor with a performance capacity of one million kilometers (620,000 miles) would use several sets of shock absorbers, wheel bearings, etc., which, even so, results in a better overall environmental footprint.

Automotive mastermind Schuh calculates that the vehicles from the e.Volution family could achieve a service life of 50 years and one million kilometers (620,000 miles) of mileage before being fully recycled – in other words about four times longer than the current passenger car average. Even when factoring in the material consumption and production energy of the spare parts installed in those five decades, which roughly equate to those of a full new car, into the e.Volution idea, the resulting environmental footprint is still twice as good.

The eternal automobile
50-year service life, one million kilometers (620,000 miles): Due to long life, the e.Volution models from automotive mastermind Professor Günther Schuh are supposed to have an environmental footprint that’s twice as good as that of conventional vehicles© Paul Schuell/eVolution
Car on hold

The longevity concepts of Eterna or the e.Volution models provide for the vehicles to make a pit stop every few years at which all wearing parts in the suspension, powertrain, or electronics are replaced and thus reset to zero mileage. A perfect solution would be to refurbish and reuse the replaced components as well to achieve a further significant improvement of the environmental footprint.

That software is increasingly becoming the backbone of modern automobiles plays into the hands of the longevity concept as well. Unlike in the case of hardware, it’s much easier to update the programs – ideally even over-the-air so that the user doesn’t even have to notice what’s happening. If on-board electronics cause trouble the central control unit is replaced completely and fed into the refurbishing process.

  • Eterna, which has been developed by students at TU Eindhoven, combines a st ...
    Eterna, which has been developed by students at TU Eindhoven, combines a stable ladder frame platform … © Eterna
  • … with an upper part consisting of elements that are easy to exchange on the ins ...
    … with an upper part consisting of elements that are easy to exchange on the inside and outside © Eterna
Future-proof thinking

As compelling as the ideas from Eindhoven and Aachen may sound – to what extent consumers are going to go along with them remains debatable. People who are used to changing cars every two or three years out of sheer joy of getting something new will no doubt have to change their mindset. However, as consumer awareness changes there’s a growing need and demand for increasingly eco-conscious vehicles. Consequently, an eternity car would be suitable for anyone to whom a quick complete replacement of their vehicle is irrelevant. Ownership increasingly often turns into usership – instead of owners, temporary users more and more frequently get behind the wheel. Prospects for eternity cars like e.Volution exist in the areas of leasing, renting, and car-sharing, in other words wherever safe mobility performance matters instead of year of manufacture or mileage, two aspects that would become irrelevant as a result of the regular resets.

The following graphic describes provides more detailed descriptions of individual “life-extending” actions for a potential eternity car.

From electric cars to eternity cars
The eternal automobile© Pixelchaos/iStock
  • 1) Electric motor 
    The electric motor is among the least sensitive components of an electric vehicle. It requires no cooling, no lubrication and since it has hardly any moving components except for the rotor its bearings and mounts are uncomplicated as well. Mileages of several hundred thousand kilometers with little maintenance requirements are possible and an exchange of the rotor bearings is easy to do.
  • 2) Electronics
    Whereas electronic components conventionally are still installed at different locations of a vehicle, electric cars in the e.Volution concept could be equipped with a central computing and electronics unit (Central Intelligence Unit). Using the plug-and-play method, that unit could easily be completely removed, updated, repaired, or replaced with a flick of the wrist. Over-the-air technology keeps software and hardware updated as well.
  • 3) Interiors
    As part of a periodic vehicle refurbishment of the e.Volution and Eterna concepts, the interior trim consisting of natural materials would be replaced and recycled. Here the personal taste of the vehicle owners could be accommodated.
  • 4) Bodywork
    If the upper body section and the chassis can easily be separated the car can be modified to suit changing life circumstances and tastes with a reasonable effort. Consequently, growing families or new hobbies involving bulky equipment do not necessarily result in a change of vehicle.
  • 5) Maintenance and wear
    Due to the small number of moving parts and service fluids, electric vehicles require very little maintenance. Spark plug changes, timing belt or chain replacements, oil changes, inspections of the V-belt and valve lash – all these are items that have disappeared from to-do lists. So have components like the clutch or the exhaust system. Only safety-related components such as the shock absorbers, the tires, the braking, or the light systems must continue to be checked and replaced as needed just like the windshield wipers or pollen filters.
  • 6) Powertrain
    To put the power of the engine or motor on the road a system of drive and prop shafts as well as differentials is used both in vehicles with IC engines and electric motors. If necessary, refurbished and thus less costly and more sustainable spare parts could be used for repairs.
  • 7) Chassis
    Corrosion protection is crucial for long chassis life. Good repairability after accidents is another important aspect. If a vehicle body should have potential for growth the chassis should be flexible too.
  • 8) Traction battery
    Besides the electric motor it’s the second original equipment component in electric vehicles. Currently, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the usage-induced capacity reduction of traction batteries is much slower than expected. Because coming high-tech and high-quality battery types will enable up to 10,000 charging cycles a service life of up to one million kilometers (620,000 miles) might become realistic. Major influencing factors such as frequency of charging and type of charging (minimal fast-charging, gentler slow-charging) can be optimized by smart battery management. That also ensures the battery’s required temperature management.
  • 9) Transmission
    Technically, an electric vehicle could be driven entirely without a transmission because the largely constant torque requires no regulation. However, in most electric vehicles, a single-speed reduction gear is integrated for better rpm adjustment. Shifting is not necessary and the additional component increases the number of moving and thus theoretically vulnerable parts only insignificantly. Some electric sports cars have a two-speed transmission to increase their final speed.
The aftermarket supports life-extending actions

The service life extension due to periodic makeover pit stops provides important impetus to the spare parts business. For Schaeffler’s Automotive Aftermarket CEO Jens Schüler, that’s not only an economic but also an environmental opportunity in terms of the refurbishing business. He says, “Especially in the case of the high-grade components of electric cars containing many valuable raw materials, refurbishing makes sense.” 

Schaeffler has already put that into practice with an e-axle for the e-Golf in this way: Instead of completely replacing the costly component, the Schaeffler solution replaces only the worn parts – saving material, reducing CO₂ emissions and, not least, cutting costs. Schüler expects the business with refurbished parts to generally return – for two reasons: It can serve to reduce CO₂ emissions and it might be a response to current scarcities. “I expect us having to live off the material that’s in the system more than we did in the past,” says Schüler.

As a result, the aftermarket has the potential to assume a central role in relation to extending the service life of vehicles in the direction of eternity cars because automotive OEMs will hardly be able to tackle the task of keeping the components required for long-term cars available for 50 years on their own. Consequently, the eternity car will be able to display its potential only in interaction between OEMs, garages, and component suppliers.

Kay Dohnke
Author Kay Dohnke
As a journalist, Kay Dohnke specializes in forward-looking topics. Writing an article about the eternity car was a walk in the park for him because he drives exactly such a car, a Volvo Amazon built in 1967 with more than 1 million kilometers (620,000) of mileage, day in day out.