It’s no question that the auto industry is all in on an electric vehicle future–auto behemoths such as General Motors, Ford, and others have followed reigning EV champion Tesla in declaring that they are aiming to be carbon neutral in upcoming decades. But how exactly these companies will be able to supercharge a transition to an electric future while maintaining a sustainable supply chain is an open question.
Kristen Siemen, the Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of General Motors (GM), explained how the company will ramp up its EV production while ensuring that the production remains sustainable and inclusive at Fortune’s Impact Initiative Conference on Wednesday in Atlanta, Ga. She said GM is on track to meet its ambitious goals of producing completely EV cars by 2035 and becoming completely carbon neutral by 2040.
“These goals are big and bold,” Siemen acknowledged. “I think it’s really about setting those goals and making the steps every day to see how you can get there, and a lot of times you can get there faster than you anticipated.”
While the commitments to EV production are a huge step for sustainability in the auto industry, the question of how the raw materials needed to build these cars are produced leave some wondering if the process of building EVs can be as environmentally friendly as the cars themselves and how these expensive materials can lead to an affordable product.
Siemen explained that for GM, the key is ensuring that every vertical of the auto production process shares GM’s values and goals for sustainability and localizing the supply chain closer to the company’s operations in North America. She also pointed to battery recycling as a method of reducing the environmental impact of raw material production. “There’s a lot of focus on the batteries and what we do to reuse those materials,” she said, adding that GM partners with companies that specialize in reusing EV batteries for production.
She also explained that from an engineering perspective, an important part of designing sustainable vehicles is building them to be recycled once they are used. “[Engineers have to consider] not just how the product performs when it’s in use, but how it performs at the end of life and what happens to it,” she said. “Is it designed not only just for assembly or for service, but is it designed for recyclability?” she added.
Siemen remained optimistic about an EV future, yet emphasized that the transition will take more than just one company. “It’s really a cultural change, we can’t do it alone,” she said. “It’s going to take the public and private sectors, it’s going to take our suppliers, and it’s going to take our employees working together to come up with solutions to make this transition. But it’s a reality. It’s happening fast.”
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