Long-Distance Shipping of Electric Car Parts Adds Environmental Impact

By · August 05, 2013

In January 2012, Nissan announced that it transported the all-electric LEAF using a ship partially powered by solar panels.

Last week, BMW introduced the BMW i3, its first production electric car. The innovative EV uses lightweight aerodynamic carbon fiber materials manufactured in Washington state, and then shipped to Germany for assembly. This begs the question: Is an electric car still green when the batteries and other parts are shipped across the globe before final assembly?

We can draw an analogy to the "food miles" concept used by local food advocates to describe the increasing environmental impact of shipping food—even organic food—long distances before it's sold at your local market. In other words, the environmental resource cost of building or using any widget is amplified by shipping that product, or its components, around the planet. One reason to buy a plug-in electric vehicle is to reduce your personal environmental footprint—but that motivation can be undermined if the production of the car excessively contributes to global warming.

Tracking the Distance

To make the i3, BMW engineers used a combination of aluminum to build the chassis (a.k.a. Drive module) and carbon fiber reinforced plastic to build the passenger compartment (a.k.a. Life module). The design reduces weight without compromising safety.

BMW claims manufacturing the i3 consumes around 50 percent less energy and 70 percent less water, in comparison with the average for other BMW vehicles. The company's goal in manufacturing the i3 is to have a carbon footprint about one-third smaller than the BMW 118d, which was awarded World Green Car of the Year in 2008. To that end, BMW powers its Leipzig plant, where the i3 is assembled, with on-site wind generators.

However, the carbon fiber material used in making i3 begins its life at the Mitsubishi Rayon-SGL Precursor Co. Ltd. in Otake, Japan. That company produces polyacrylonitrile fiber, which is shipped from Japan to the SGL Group (SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers) facility in Moses Lake, Washington, where the raw carbon fibers are made. From Moses Lake, the raw carbon fibers are shipped to a series of BMW factories in Germany where the material is laminated, compressed with plastic resins, and formed into car parts.

Now consider that the battery pack for the Chevy Spark is manufactured by A123 Systems LLC at factories in Michigan. The battery—as well as the electric motor produced in Maryland—are shipped to Korea, where they're installed into Spark EV bodies. The gasoline Chevy Spark is built by GM Korea and is sold worldwide. The Chevy Spark EV is simply the electrified version of the gas-powered Spark, and therefore it makes sense for its production to occur in Korea. Unfortunately, this means components are shipped from the U.S. to Korea, and then assembled in a car that's shipped back to California or Oregon for sale.

Think Local

The Nissan LEAF provides a counterpoint. For the 2011 and 2012 model years, all LEAF production occurred in Japan. But beginning with the 2013 model year, the Nissan electric car is made in the U.S. and in England for sales in their respective continents. Making the LEAF in Japan had several negative impacts. The disasters resulting from massive 2011 earthquake in Japan affected manufacturing in Japan, limiting production of the LEAF. In addition, Nissan faces an unattractive exchange rate when making cars in Japan and selling them in the U.S. Shifting production to the U.S. helped Nissan reduce the price of the 2013 model.

Nissan Leaf electric motors and battery packs, as well as final assembly, now occurs in Nissan's factories in Tennessee.

Battery cells for the Chevy Volt (and soon, the Ford Focus Electric) are manufactured at LG Chem's factories in Michigan. Previously those Volt cells were made at LG factories in Korea. GM manufactures the battery packs (using LG Chem cells) for the Volt at its own domestic factory. It will be a few months before these batteries appear in cars on dealers lots, because of the lead-time required for battery pack production. LG Chem was originally slated to start production at the Holland, Mich. in 2012 but weak sales of the Chevy Volt caused a delay.


· · 2 years ago

Why singling out EVs or plug-ins hybrids?
Or car parts, for that matter?
Shipping anything long-distance takes its little toll.

Oh wait, that includes oil now, doesn't it?

· · 2 years ago

@Mr.O, good point, and one that was touched on if only briefly in the piece. The reason to focus on EV's and PHEV's is that a) this site is focused on that issue overall, b) as I said, the advantages of the clean vehicle is somewhat negated the dirtier is it's manufacturing.

· · 2 years ago

It is great to see the steps that BMW, Nissan, GM, and others are taking to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicle production. However, I think it is important to point out that over a typical vehicle lifespan, the fuel-use dominates the vehicles footprint. Production of the vehicle is generally about ~20% of its cradle to grave footprint (regardless of the vehicle type).

So it is far more important that we drivers focus on using renewable energy sources to fuel our cars than it is to worry about where the parts were sourced and where it was assembled (from a footprint perspective).

If you want to buy local to support local jobs or your local economy, that is different (and commendable). I would suggest getting a vehicle that is fueled locally.

· · 2 years ago

Ocean shipping is pretty fuel-efficient. However, that bunker fuel they burn is toxic-dirty stuff that should be banned.

· · 2 years ago


I guess it depends on how you define "efficient"

In terms of tons moved per unit of fuel, yes container shipping is pretty good. But a typical container ship burns on the order of 100 gallons per mile, which isn't that great from a pollution standpoint.

· · 2 years ago

Much ado about nothing except maybe a little click bait.

· · 2 years ago

On the contrary, jamesrpoch, I'm glad that David presented this article. It's a more important issue to consider than much of what gets served up daily as electric car "news," which actually amounts to little more than so-called "click bait."

The usual reasons for manufacturers to farm out parts of their manufacturing or assembly procedures to various facilities around the world has largely been motivated by economics and lower labor costs in (mostly) Asian countries. BMW would probably tell us that, since their i3 isn't exactly a budget car, that the carbon fiber folks in Washington state know how to do it better than anyone else they happen to work with. But, as their new EV begins to actually sell in significant quantities, they may want to consolidate under one roof as much as possible.

There was a book released a few years ago , $20 Per Gallon, that posed some interesting scenarios as to how the world would change - sometimes for the worse, but often for the better - as the retail price of gasoline would rise over time . . .


One of the observations posed in that volume would be that farming out much of our manufacturing to China would no longer be as economically viable as the price of gas began to rise. To a certain degree, we're already seeing some manufacturing returning to the US, independent of fuel prices, due to higher labor costs over there. A bump in fuel prices will only speed that trend along and, in turn, give consumers more pause to considering buying a non-gasoline car.

· · 2 years ago

Think about the TONS of weight and impact of refining, shipping, and driving around thousands of gallons of fuel for all other cars. There's just no point in arguing against electric cars.

· · 2 years ago

Why does it feel more and more to me like some people on this website don't have ev's on their mind or have alternative agendas? For example, check out the will toyota cancel the Rav4 ev post of a few days ago. I may be biased in thinking but I think fuel cells have about as much chance of being mainstream or even in line with ev's virtually impossible. The "technology" was a big joke for automakers to get millions from california when the ev1 was killed. Now where what over 10 years later and their still working on it????????? Do they really think anyone's that stupid????? I personally think california should penalise manufacturers not making their own ev's as well as if they only sell in california. They whine and cry about how much money their loosing. Yet tesla hasn't gone bankrupt as expected and has sold several. Nissan has sold over 100,000 ev's. So I guess I don't see where they don't sell. It's called they don't want to cut their profits for a couple years to help our environment and make us independent from foreign oil. It's the same crap as over 10 years ago. Though now some of the so called "compliance" cars are being sold,not leased.

· · 2 years ago

There are few on this blog, Brad, who would be making an outright argument against electric cars. But it's valid to see that these clean vehicles can be kept as clean as possible while being manufactured.

Anti-EV gadflies, such as Ozzie Zehner, regularly serve up old and/or erroneous data in regards to the amounts of precious metals needed to make a modern electric car. These observations need to be regularly debunked.

But, if a manufacturer really is producing an EV with inefficient or environmentally irresponsible techniques, it's not out of bounds for consumers - especially the ones who care about EVs - that they do better.

· · 2 years ago

I hear you, bluefever. What is certainly happening, as EVs become more mainstream, is that consumers soon begin to focus more on onwnership/operating costs, performance, features and less on positive environmental aspects. We debated here the other week the pros and cons of advertising that emphasized "green" appeal. Some argued that it would turn off half the potential audience.

The good news, as you mentioned, is that Nissan's Leaf is doing well and won't be dispersing anytime soon, while Tesla is also profitable. EVs are finally here to stay and, while it's frustrating to witness the California compliance car phenomenon, we haven't receded back in time to witness electric cars being recalled and crushed.

Hydrogen . . . even if they can provide the fuel cleanly while making the fuel cells both cheaper and more reliable (all of that would be a positive development,) there are so many obstacles in regards to establishing refueling infrastructure that that I doubt its going to be the dominant technology for consumer autos anytime soon.

Also . . . the end product of a fuel cell is electricity. It would be pointless to make a hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) car that doesn't have regenerative braking technology and batteries to store the excess of electricity that's produced. HFC advocates are misguided if they turn up their noses at better battery technology and advances in drive train technology . It serves their better interests as well.

· · 2 years ago

@David, how is shipping of EV parts relevant, even to readers of this blog, when no comparison with non-plugin vehicles is made? Do those require more stuff to be shipped around, about the same, or maybe less? Can anyone provide actual data?

Next, does it really matter? As noted again by @Patrick and @Brad, car parts weight little compared to the amount of gas an ICE would require, so no matter how we slice and dice it, as soon as we start accounting for fuel, plug-ins win with huge margins.

Let's illustrate with some numbers:

My 20+y car was getting 27~28 mpg (about the US average now, sigh...). I drive 15~16kmiles/year, so I was burning about 550 gallons/y. That's 4600 liters (29 barrels) of crude oil -- about 4 metric TONS of the stuff, every single year.

ICE lifetime total, including the car but not counting maintenance: over 81 tons of junk shipped around, and that's a conservative estimate.

My new car, a Leaf, weights 1.5 ton, ~200kg more than its predecessor. Say every part was hauled long-distance. For good measure, let's also count the ~250kg of the made-in-USA solar panels on my roof, which provide 100% of this vehicle's power. Let's even add the replacement 290kg battery I'll likely need to drive it a second decade.

EV lifetime total: 2 tons, 40x less than the vehicle it replaced.

There is simply no comparison whatsoever.

· · 2 years ago

Shipping parts for EV’s? All the rest of the cars purchased parts are shipped? EVs though don’t have the complexity of regular cars. Remember Gas powered engines require Gas, Oil, and other fluids changed regularly. EV’s don’t and most not ever. Then you have other wearable’s like brakes, clutches, filters on Gas powered cars where on EV’s you have brakes yes, but regeneration keeps them from being used most of the time to any great extent so changing those it few and far between. There are no clutches, there are no filters there is no transmission. In fact the only filter I know of is the in-cabin air filter. Either way any discussion on equivalent carbon foot print between an EV and Gas powered car is ridiculous. Reminds me back at the turn of the century 1900’s when people mostly road horses, cart and buggy and mass transit by steam, rail and other. When gas powered cars came out they were not considered anything one would have for long distance travel by any means and were not affordable by most. I believe we are right at the time where EV cars have just become affordable and people are starting to realize that driving a gas powered car is like the old horse and buggy a dinosaur of a bye gone era. EV’s shortly will be faster more efficient and create a whole other level of technology and seriously reduce air and noise pollution.

· · 1 year ago

@bluefever - I happen to be looking at this article again, nearly a year later. You asked a year ago why we published an article wondering whether Toyota would be canceling the RAV4 EV, and pshawing all over the idea of fuel cell vehicles. Since then Toyota has indeed canceled the RAV4 EV, and is doubling down on fuel cell vehicles, while showing all the signs of downplaying EV's. I think that shows a lot of presience on the part of our staff.

It's unfortunate that Toyota is taking this path.

· · 30 weeks ago

This era is rapidly getting attracted toward electric car and therefore shipping rate of its assembly has also been increased up to so far. The thing that needs to be comprehended is its impact on greenery and environment. Well production & shipping of parts made of carbon fiber as well battery to far places is harmful for environment. Thanks to companies like BMW, Nissan etc. are paying attention toward reduction of carbon fiber footprint of vehicle production. These companies have always been famous for making eco-friendly parts as available at http://www.allusedparts.com/bmw/ and this time we again hope from them to amaze all by launching new environment friendly stuff.

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