“Our targets are driving us hard”

Reducing without reducing customer benefits: Daniela Bohlinger develops responsible mobility solutions as Head of Sustainability Design at the BMW Group. Photo: © BMW

Reducing without reducing customer benefits: Daniela Bohlinger develops responsible mobility solutions as Head of Sustainability Design at the BMW Group. Photo: © BMW

New materials, new production methods – when a car designer plans sustainably, it transforms the entire manufacturing process, from buying in resources through to the plant production line. Daniela Bohlinger, Head of Sustainability Design at BMW Group, is driving that agenda in new car development. Because sustainable mobility means more than just manufacturing and driving emission-free, as far as possible.

What does sustainability mean for you?

Daniela Bohlinger: It’s very important to me that we handle our resources in a way that reflects their value. We are mindful of what’s in everyone’s best interests, and we need to manage the things available to us today responsibly. For me, sustainability means accepting responsibility for my actions. Even if it calls for a rethink in how I live.

Sustainability and mobility – how do those two fit together?

We can’t do without mobility in today’s world. There are regions where people are cut off without it. In cities nowadays, there are plenty of great solutions for achieving highly CO2-neutral ways of getting about. But in more rural areas, people need mobility. That’s why it is important the solutions we create are responsible ones.

Daniela Bohlinger checks the fishing nets destined for recycling. © BMW

From a design perspective, how does a car become more sustainable?

As a designer, I have the opportunity to influence the CO2 footprint significantly, since around 80 percent of that is determined by the design, right from the very first line. We have the opportunity to design cars even more efficiently. In terms of surfaces, in terms of the choice of materials.

Where precisely do you start when you say: We are making the car sustainable?

It starts with the question as to what type of production I use. With linear production – cradle to grave – generally the vehicle ends up either as a classic car or on a scrapheap. Or you can adopt a circular model. That is the massive challenge today for the entire industry. If we design in future so that we can reuse the car’s materials and components, it means having to build the vehicle in a completely different way.

What does slimming down the design mean?

Everything we don’t need is left out. Plus, there are components we no longer need today, because we can now be a lot more innovative and develop a new language of forms via design. For example, at present we still have a relatively thick sandwich construction. In future, we will be able to work with just one material, a mono-material, helping us to use a single type of material that can be recycled and therefore offering better qualities for recycling. That means that we can reduce, with no gluing and welding the material. In future, the material will simply be click-assembled, so that it can be disassembled again.

Won’t we then miss some things when we are driving?

You can reduce without cutting back on utility for the customer. For instance, in a car we have a large number of different user interfaces or buttons – spread right across the dashboard. And there are various buttons in the door too. That can all be centralized. Digitalization, too, helps with simplifying, with bundling things and putting them together in a smarter way. So we end up with a tidied-up door and a single, central control panel.

Sustainability in the production of the BMW i3: 25 percent of the materials used for the thermoplastic exterior parts were recycled or come from renewable resources. © BMW

A car comprises roughly around 10,000 different materials. How can you reduce here?

We have an incredible number of different plastics, for instance. One is a little softer to the touch, while another flows better. The vital questions are: Which of these materials have a high CO2 impact? Which are the materials capable of satisfying the same requirements in a way that saves on resources – materials we can use as substitutes? By the same token, you can buy steel and aluminum that has already been through a use cycle, sourced either from aircraft construction or possibly even coming from our own vehicles. That’s because steel and aluminum can be recycled exceptionally well. The challenge is to preserve the value-added chain.

How do you find these new materials?

One way is through discussions, including with other companies. For example, I have close contacts with Ikea and Adidas. Puma designed a seat for us and we designed a trainer, to explore how materials can be handled. We discuss metals and surfaces with Bosch Siemens Hausgeräte. The materials designers swap ideas on how to approach developing sustainable materials. And we have Designworks colleagues based in Munich, Los Angeles (USA) and Shanghai (China) doing research for us, which can also be relevant in their markets in relation to sustainability. This is where policy requirements and decisions also play a big part. We develop new materials which are also well-received in the fashion world, for instance – but we develop them in such a way that they satisfy the requirements for the car.

But in the design, you also need to ensure that the look and feel we are familiar with is retained in the new materials.

Yes. Or even improved. So that the customer says, up until now I really liked that material, but the new material is fantastic. For instance, if the dashboard is no longer manufactured in a black plastic but from flax, the question becomes: What do we need to do so the customer perception is one of high value, and the product is seen not as a substitute for but as an enhancement to the quality of the experience? But sometimes you don’t see the sustainability at all. For instance, you can be looking at a black plastic in the interior without realizing it is 80 percent recycled material. It’s important to evaluate which materials we are working on for their looks and esthetics, and which, from a sustainability perspective, we are only changing in terms of their own performance. You can’t simply replace leather with a material from mangroves, cork or pineapple fibers. You need to consider each material for the door, seat or roof individually.

Leather can be replaced by a material made from press residues from apple juice production and polymers. © Nathan Hulsey / Unsplash

Which aspects are important when using sustainable resources?

There are materials which offer improved performance in terms of resistance to bending, for example. Flax can be woven into lattice structures, allowing completely new shapes to be designed. It’s true that carbon mats can do that too. But my new material consists of renewable raw materials, has no upstream CO2 footprint and only a very small one at the end. Hence recycling it doesn’t present a problem for the environment. Another material we are putting a lot of work into is leather.


Leather has a poor CO2 and water balance sheet. It is often tanned using chromium, and as a result it gives off pollutants. If we want to replace it, we need a luxurious new material, but one that needs to live up to the requirements for a car seat, offering breathability and ease of cleaning whilst also expressing modernity. We are collaborating with start-ups on this too. One of them, for instance, is manufacturing an artificial leather from apple residues, left over from the pressings when producing apple juice. However, polymers need to be added into the mix. In other words, you still have 80 percent the same material as with synthetic leather. So we are looking to establish the point where there is maximum use of the renewable raw materials, and to see how the petrochemical materials can be reduced.

Textile will become the new leather. Today, textiles are being manufactured from recyclates – from PET bottles or old fishing nets. On the forthcoming electric SUV i20, for instance, we have used fishing nets made entirely from pure polyester. They are processed into a granulate, and new yarn is then spun from that. In the BMW i20, these textiles can be found in the roof, floor, carpet and car mats. You can use it everywhere. In future, we will be attempting to use no mineral oil-based textiles in the car at all, only recyclates.

So are recyclates the new raw materials?

We want to become a circular business, and ultimately to recycle the car too. That’s why we want to use materials from renewable raw materials. If I am eventually going to shred the seat coverings and make new material from them, I need to think carefully beforehand which materials I can use. For instance, you can make fantastic yarn from beech wood. Plenty of people have clothes containing lyocell in their wardrobe. I love that material. But you can’t recycle it again, because it becomes short-fibred. At that point, the circular process would be interrupted. The best materials for recycling are polyester or plastic. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile looking at everything in detail and then considering which material can best be used on which component.

It sounds as if you need to fully re-imagine car design.

Yes, totally. We are moving from evolutionary design into revolutionary design. And it is changing the company radically, because it is not just the processes in vehicle design which need to be rethought. The choice of materials is being rethought, the plants are being designed differently. The production lines are designed differently, the transports organized differently. It’s a holistic transformation of a company.

That sounds like a lot of investment. So is the effort involved in sustainability worth it?

Yes – sustainability means safeguarding the future. Firstly, in the next 40 to 50 years certain materials and resources will no longer be available to the same extent as now. Secondly, a company bears an environmental responsibility, to our society and also globally. Sustainability always has three pillars: environmental, economic and social. If you fail to consider the economic dimension, then you cannot do justice to the other two pillars either. That’s why, as I see it, every company needs to enter into this transformation, in order to remain relevant. Otherwise those companies are also no longer credible with their customers. And I’m being honest with you when I say that the targets people are setting us are driving us hard.

Do you mean the CO2 targets?

Those too. Along with the targets on use of recyclates that we have announced. These are challenging for us because the outside markets are not that far developed. If I say I would like to be using 40 per cent recyclates now, you simply can’t source that volume on the world market presently. But one example of how the whole recycling system has changed is the textile industry. Today, the big companies in the sector, like H&M or Zara, have recycling systems. So there is already a lot more material available. Things looked very different 15 years ago.

Does that mean that clothes which I hand back to H&M, for example, could end up in my new car?

Theoretically, I can buy recyclate sourced from a single textile, if I want cotton. We are already looking at all possible sources for plastics, metals and aluminum. We are getting together with major manufacturers from other sectors and forming recycling federations. Partners come from the aviation sector, the consumer goods industry or computer manufacturers who generate large quantities of material waste – aluminum waste, for instance. It is a major collaborative effort.

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