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At Least One Auto Exec Wants More Environmental Regulation. Here’s Why

Left to their own devices, the public will shun safer, more sustainable products if it costs them more in the short term, Magna's R&D chief said.

It’s no secret that the car biz employs a lot of conservative thinkers and traditionalists. It’s no surprise, either—building cars is a colossally complex enterprise, and changes are both challenging and costly. But I recently had the chance to sit down with Jörg Grotendorst, Senior VP of R&D at Magna, one of the world’s largest auto suppliers, and as he spoke I felt my head tilting like my dog’s does when she hears a new sound. He’s not only bullish on electric cars—he believes government regulation is the only catalyst that can clean up the automobile industry.

“To make transportation safe and sustainable, we need legislation,” Grotendorst said to me and other writers in a media briefing roundtable. “People are not self-motivated. If we [were] self-motivated, we would all compromise right now, nowadays already, and pay the extra cost to drive electric cars.”

He meant that consumers and companies aren’t going to shell out more money for environmentally friendly vehicles without laws forcing them to. I don’t disagree, but was still pretty surprised to hear a high-ranking business guy staunchly advocating for more regulation in his industry. Execs typically claim the free market will fix everything, but Grotendorst seemed more realistic.

“Do you think people would have been willing to pay extra for a diesel particulate filter or something like that? No … do you think anti-lock braking systems would have made it [into every car] if there had been no legislation?”

Grotendorst went on to cite seat belts, airbags, and as a more modern example, driver-assistance tech, as all things that improved car safety and were ultimately pushed to ubiquity by legislation.

He even discussed individual transportation, and privately owned cars, with a level of self-awareness and candor I would never expect from somebody in his position. “I think we all love to be independent, [but] from a pure economic aspect, is it sensible to drive a vehicle? No, it’s not. [A] typical vehicle has less than 10% of lifetime usage … 90% of the time it stands around.” That split surely looks a little different in rural America than urban Europe, but the point’s still valid.

“Individual mobility by itself is not an issue, [yes]? CO2 footprint and sustainability is an issue. And I think the only solution that we have right now is regulation. Legislation and regulation. Otherwise, mankind would drive themselves to death.”

“People would rather spend more money on nice rims, leather, and everything. We’re the only creature on this planet that would kill itself,” Grotendorst said. I thought about my ’75 Scout, which is both unsafe for occupants and toxic to the environment, with a little self-consciousness.

I’m moving the order of his statements around a little here, but Grotendorst made a couple of comments about nature and animals, and how they relate to engine efficiency that I really liked.

“Nature is always the best example of what you can do in terms of product development,” he said definitively. “None of the creatures you see on this planet create noise to move forward. Don’t forget, when you leave this room, noise is always loss.”

We’d told him we were going to drive a Ferrari SF90 the next day, (which uses a transmission manufactured in Germany by Magna). It’s a gas/electric hybrid, but its petrol-powered component is a twin-turbo V8 that roars with Godzillian ferocity when you wake it up. 

“The noise that you create, is, what? It’s unused pressure at the end of the burning cycle. So you knock the piston down, and then open the outlet valve, and unfortunately, there’s still pressure in the cylinder. Unused energy. And then you’re allowed to shoot it off, and that’s creating noise. That’s stupid. In an ideal world, if you press the piston down, the inner pressure of the cylinder should be almost around 1 bar. Then you’d have, physically, the best solution. [But if you have a] supercharged engine, you press so much air in, and then you shoot fuel in, you fire it, and then you may have, in a gasoline engine, 20 bar of pressure or whatever. Then the piston is really knocked down, and when you open the outlet valve, you may still have 6, 5, 4 bars in the cylinder—which is waste. But you have great noise. Physically, that’s stupid.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to a car’s environmental impact than how much fuel it converts to noise. Many of Magna’s people, including Grotendorst, told us that all of the company’s clients (automakers that have parts or vehicles manufactured by Magna) now require details on the environmental impact of the entire supply chain. That’s thanks in part to, indeed, legislation. The harvesting of rare-earth materials necessary to make electric cars is still a sticking point there, but it was mentioned that greener alternatives are being researched.

Grotendorst told us that his own household is energy-negative. He has two electric cars, solar panels on his roof, and batteries in his home, producing more power on average in a year than he can use. As you can gather from what I’ve already shared, he’s clearly not an old-school gearhead.

I asked him about the future of enthusiast cars, partially because that’s my wheelhouse, but also because they represent a decent chunk of Magna’s business right now. The company is currently building the BMW Z4, Toyota Supra, Mercedes G-Class, and Ineos Grenadier at its factory in Graz, Austria. In fairness, the electric Jaguar I-Pace and, until recently, Fisker Ocean (RIP) were built there too. But some of the cars on that list are among the most anachronistic gasoline guzzlers on the road right now.

He essentially shrugged off the idea of having an emotional connection with a vibrating engine, and more or less insisted that every vehicle would be objectively better as an EV. I wanted to get more into, you know, how the company’s trying to be green while also building Mercedes-AMG G63s that will spend their lives idling in LA traffic, but we got onto the track of manufacturing more broadly.

EVs represent research and development expense, but also some interesting opportunities in assembly. “Since Ford’s Tin Lizzie, we’ve had almost the same [manufacturing] process,” said Grotendorst. “With the trend toward electrification, you can completely rethink this process.”

With traditional car manufacturing, “…you’re limited in space with how many people can work with a body-in-white at the same time. Imagine, you could have the car divided into three pieces. Theoretically … more people could work on the car at the same time. You would be faster in assembling the vehicle, and with smaller pieces, you need less space. And, you may be more flexible in terms of combining different front and different rear ends of the vehicle. And you could standardize the part in between. That’s something we’re discussing.”

Magna’s a unique company in the car world, delivering components, manufacturing processes, compliance testing, vehicle evaluations, and sometimes an entire car—from its engineering to construction—to multiple automaker brands. Grotendorst’s green automotive ambitions can’t be entirely altruistically motivated, so I’m guessing he sees business opportunities in bringing OEMs into compliance with future sustainability legislation.

But I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and frankness. Grotendorst’s comments even took a small bite out of my cynicism. Maybe there are enough people in power who care enough about our environment to save us from ourselves. Then again, he also left me with a new dread in an off-handed comment: “The next CO2 is water.” As in, the next environmental factor we’ll be panicking about is a dearth of H2O. Maybe we’ll get to live out our Mad Max “fantasies” after all.

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