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Taking a Life Cycle Approach

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is an analytical tool that helps identify and measure the potential environmental impacts of products or services. We use LCAs to understand and reduce the materials and energy used, and emissions generated, over the entire life cycle of our products.

Quantifying Vehicle and Fuel Impacts

As our product portfolio includes an ever-widening range of engines and fuels, LCAs become increasingly complex and all the more important. We are continuing to develop a portfolio of LCA tools to gain a more holistic understanding of the impacts of our products over their life cycle. In 2016, Ford researchers published a physics-based LCA model to quantify the energy and GHG emission benefits of lightweighting electric vehicles.1

The life cycle of a vehicle spans the environmental impacts associated with everything from the mining of the ores and metals used in its manufacture, through the production of materials, fuels and components, and the assembly, use and maintenance of the vehicle to, finally, its disposal.

Our Product Life Cycle

  • Mining Ores or Raw Energy Carriers

  • Producing Materials and Fuels

  • Fabricating Parts

  • Vehicle Assembly

  • Vehicle Use and Maintenance

  • End of Life

Historically, much of our work to improve the life cycle performance of our products has focused on their tailpipe or tank-to-wheels (TTW) greenhouse gas (GHG) and other emissions. However, we are now also working to understand the well-to-wheels (WTW) impacts of our products and the fuels they use. Estimates of WTW emissions vary with the specifics of the vehicle, engine and fuel type:

At what life cycle stage are most GHG emissions released?

In gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles (including hybrids)... it is during the vehicle’s use

In plug-in hybrids,2 battery- and hydrogen-powered is during production of the fuel (electricity or hydrogen)

When comparing gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, diesels generally have lower lifetime GHG emissions than gasoline equivalents. And in vehicles with other powertrains, overall CO2 emissions depend on the carbon intensity of the electricity or hydrogen production. The emission benefits of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are maximized when the electricity is generated from low-CO2 sources such as wind or solar power.

  Read more about our work to develop alternative fuel and powertrain options

Regardless of the fuel used, GHG impacts from fuel production are part of the total vehicle life cycle impacts. They are not within the control of the vehicle manufacturer, and need to be addressed under a separate framework. To achieve the desired GHG reductions in this stage, other stakeholders such as fuel producers, infrastructure developers and government are essential participants in the development of a solution.

How We Apply LCA

We are applying our LCA knowledge in research and development using, for example, our Product Sustainability Index (PSI) in Europe. This tool assesses a range of attributes, from life cycle global-warming potential and air-quality potential to the use of sustainable materials, external noise, safety, capacity relative to vehicle size and ownership costs over the first three years. Through the PSI, several European vehicles have demonstrated improved environmental, social and/or economic performance over their life cycle when compared with previous models.

We use LCA to help us assess the environmental and cost impacts of different materials. We are currently studying the energy and GHG emissions from producing carbon fiber automotive parts and comparing these impacts to the fuel savings these parts can help generate.

Driving the Science of Sustainability

Ford researchers have played a leading role in an industry-government cradle-to-grave LCA, which explored the costs and GHG emissions of current and future technology for light-duty vehicles. Compared to a conventional gasoline vehicle, CO2 abatement costs were estimated to be around $100s per metric ton, increasing to $1,000s per metric ton for alternative vehicle-fuel pathways. The data, assumptions and methodology have been made available publicly to inform technical discussions about cost-effective strategies to reduce CO2 emissions.

We believe that addressing climate change requires a multi-sector approach, in which the cost-effectiveness of CO2 abatement options will be of critical importance. We are conducting research to compare the cost-effectiveness of actions intended to achieve emission reduction targets in sectors facing high abatement costs (such as transport) with those in other sectors.

  Read about how we’re addressing non-CO2 emissions

  1. H.C. Kim, T.J. Wallington, “Life cycle assessment of vehicle lightweighting: A physics-based model to estimate use-phase fuel consumption of electrified vehicles,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 50, 11226 (2016).

  2. Plug-in hybrids that travel long distances or use renewable electricity can incur more GHG emissions from vehicle use than fuel production.