The COVID-19 epidemic has had a significant impact on the functioning of many important sectors of the global economy, such as the automotive industry, among others. In addition to short-term negative effects such as disrupted supply chains and slowed production, the pandemic has also resulted in some long-term and, counterintuitively, even positive changes in some of the automotive industry's development directions.
To begin to consider the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on changes in the automotive industry, it is first worth noting the size and potential of this sector. The global automotive industry employs 14 million people in Europe alone, another 8 million in the US and 5 million in China. It is structured as a complex network of chains between the manufacturers of the final product, the component suppliers of first, second, third and further tiers, as well as between car manufacturers and distributors and the end customer. The restrictions, introduced in 2020, have resulted in factory closures, significant delivery delays and measurable financial losses for many companies. The automotive industry in the UK has shrunk by up to 29% in just one year. According to some analyses, the automotive market in Europe will need around 10 years to reach the size of 2019.
By contrast, the automotive industry in China has seen smaller losses, becoming the leading market with a production rate of 48.9 cars per minute after quickly recovering from the pandemic. To put this in perspective, in the United States the figure is 20.7 and in Germany only 8.9. The main challenge for the next few years will therefore be to rebuild production, but there are other challenges as well. The pandemic has left a much deeper mark on customer expectations and behaviour. Some of these have surfaced before, and some are completely new.
Urban transport – towards electromobility
The most obvious effect of the pandemic in large cities has been a massive shift away from public transport to the private car, motorbike or bicycle. This is not surprising, since the use of individual means of transport generates much lower risk of infection. Carsharing has now also suffered for the same reasons. A full return to this mode of transport can only be expected once the pandemic has ended. According to estimates by McKinsey, micromobility is a very developing trend for the global automotive industry, which will continue to grow in the coming years.
In connection with the problem of growing traffic and CO2 emission levels in urban areas, a significant challenge is the expansion of the charging network for electric cars, so that they can become the leading means of individual transport, taking the place of internal combustion vehicles. According to the European Commission's calculations, the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030 is feasible if there are about 6 million charging points for electric cars throughout the European Union. At present, there are less than 225 000 of them, and 70% of them are located in just three countries: The Netherlands, France and Germany. For comparison, in China, there are currently over 330 000 public chargers for electric cars.
Green transport and CO2 reduction plan in jeopardy?
Taking into account the most recent data concerning the progress in implementing the assumptions of the European Green Deal, the average level of emissions generated by new passenger cars registered in the European Union must fall by 37.5% by 2030, as compared to 2021. Meanwhile, the Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020 report prepared by BloombergNEF indicates that CO2 emissions will continue to grow until 2033, even though the global automotive industry is undergoing intensive electrification.
This means that current assumptions need to be revised and new measures implemented to speed up the process of replacing combustion engine cars with electric ones. The report also indicates that there will be more than 500 new electric car models on the market before 2022, despite the COVID-19 crisis. More and more manufacturers declare that they will switch to producing only electric cars before 2030, or even achieve complete climate neutrality. Regardless of the plans to withdraw internal combustion engines from the European market after 2035, there have also been projects aimed at preserving them. One of them envisages creating a new, ecological biofuel produced on the basis of algae.
A lighter car is an environmentally friendly car
A current challenge that continues to appear in automotive forecasts is the reduction of the curb weight of vehicles. On the one hand, this will reduce the combustion and CO2 emissions of cars powered by traditional engines and, on the other, increase the range of electric cars. New technologies are needed to replace traditional car body materials. One of them could be, for example, lightweight metal composites, but for now they are relatively expensive and increase the final price of cars, which may make them inaccessible to the mass consumer. An important material for the future of the automotive industry that is available now and does not require complex processing technologies is expanded polypropylene (EPP).
This ultralight material, which is 95% air by volume, is already used for a wide range of body components such as bumper dampers, seat infills, flooring, headliners, door panels and boot lids. Compared to elements produced from traditional foams, they are up to 60% lighter, which allows for a real reduction in the weight of the car. Ecological technology of polypropylene processing with the use of water vapour circulating in a closed circle allows for very flexible adjustment of foaming pressure and, consequently, the material density parameter. Depending on the manufactured element and its place of application, it can obtain specific properties, such as increased mechanical strength or increased thermal insulation. The versatility, production economy and full recyclability of this material make it a solution for the green future of the automotive industry.