Ford and Nike use big data to make smarter sustainable design
Ford Motor Company has taken the “heavy” out of its best-selling F-150 heavy-duty truck, with the help of big data and climate change models. The auto giant has redesigned its 2015 model to be 700lbs lighter using aluminum alloy components similar to military and aerospace materials. The new version, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show last month, also adds a 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 engine option with start-stop technology to further reduce fuel usage.
The new F-150 is one result of unique teamwork between Ford’s sustainability strategy and core research groups, said John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters.
“We wanted climate science to be our foundation to determine our CO2 targets for fuel economy from now into the next century,” he explained. “Our analysts worked with an energy provider to kick out models for Ford to do our share of climate stabilization.”
Besides its goal of reducing CO2, Ford decided that it made business sense to create its own targets for fuel economy and emissions rather than rely on the ups and downs of regulations, Viera explained. The company looked at the global regulations of the auto industry, particularly in Europe, and found that they often followed the same path as the climate stabilization trajectory, Viera said. Ford used the climate stabilization curve as its target.
To make sure its climate models and assumptions were accurate and credible, Ford worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.
The data analytics also enable Ford to find the optimal mix of vehicles (gasoline, hybrid, electric, hydrogen, etc) to maximize profits today and decades to come. Because of the sheer number of F-150 trucks sold – over 760,000 in 2013 – the aluminum technology may have a far greater impact on the environment than Ford’s electric vehicles.
Life cycle assessments helped Ford see that it was more sustainable to incorporate recycled materials from waste streams of industries like carpets and denim rather than materials grown across the globe like bamboo, Viera explained.
Cars of the future
Beyond analytics, vehicles themselves generate a lot of data. Today’s computerized cars are already data rich, and the connected cars of the future will be exponentially more advanced in terms of data collection and usage, said Tim Lipman, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It varies by car, but right now a conventional car that has fuel injection – nothing fancy – and a computerized electronic emissions control system, takes 10-20m lines of code or more,” Lipman said. “In the future it will be hundreds of millions.”
Viera points to a data-enhanced future in which cars use data in new ways. Beyond GPS and sensors, Ford is thinking about “green routing”, which refers to optimizing routes for traffic, distance, energy economy and emissions. Some 98% of a vehicle’s carbon footprint comes from the tailpipe. In one future example, hybrid vehicles may use air quality and location data to automatically switch over from gasoline to electric when entering school or hospital zones.
However, more data will bring with it new questions of privacy, encryption and data protection that will need to be addressed, Lipman added.
Nike’s smart data
Ford is not the only company rethinking products’ sustainability using big data, or what Nike’s Hannah Jones, vice-president of sustainable business and innovation, prefers to call “smart data”.
“There’s a lot of talk about how much we need data, but actually we need the right data, and we use some serious analytics behind it to turn it into value creation,” said Jones.
Data analysis, future casting and scenario planning are helping Nike find ways to reach its vision of decoupling growth from constrained resources like fossil fuels and water, Jones explained. The company designed products that reduce manufacturing waste like its Flyknit shoes, developed a water-free dyeing technique called ColorDry, and researched alternatives to cotton, a water intensive crop.
“It’s incredible how when you start to play with data and scenario planning, you can radically shift peoples’ mindsets in a matter of hours,” Jones said.
Both Viera and Jones agree that sustainable design can only go so far, and that wider systems level change is needed. Smart data is just one impetus to affect systems change, along with collaboration and innovation, Jones said.
“My team and I fundamentally believe that the more we can flow sustainable innovations into our business and into the market, the more we can show a vision of good and [provide] alternatives to the current state, and hopefully render the current state obsolete.”
Jones added that data analysis for sustainability can help lead business models. She points to how the materials’ industry has pushed the chemical industry to provide greener chemicals. Chemistry is one area of impact that Nike used to analyze materials in its internal Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which has 80,000 materials to date.
Nike’s MSI helped set the standard for the footwear and apparel industry when Nike gave the MSI to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) to use as the basis of its HIGG 2 Indexes, a free tool that helps designers, buyers and consumers determine the environmental and social impacts of materials, manufacturing and distribution. Opening access to the index through SAC is critical in providing the apparel industry with a neutral database that can be added to and amended, Jones said.
Ultimately, the business case for sustainable design is the measurement of products’ success.
“The consumer won’t compromise on performance or price, but I think the consumer is really connecting the dots now,” said Jones. “It’s going to be a requisite in the future for brands to have embedded in the business model how they think about sustainability and how they redefine premium.”