Taking inspiration from nature to develop a sustainable automotive industry

© Renault Design

Living processes are exciting research topics for car manufacturers in their perpetual quest for the innovations that will produce more ergonomic, safer and, most importantly, cleaner vehicles. Animals are an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Entomologists’ research allows us to envisage a future where, thanks to the abilities of certain insects, we will drive in vehicles that are self-cleaning or have a more efficient anti-collision device. And maybe one day the interactions between the autonomous vehicles of the future will imitate the behaviour of shoals of fish.  

Jérôme Perrin, the Renault’s Scientific Director, explains how the French automotive group is innovating thanks to the living world.

 

When did Renault first take an interest in bio-inspiration, and what concrete forms does it take today?

 

Renault has been in contact with experts in bio-inspiration for several years. This has even resulted in a partnership with the European Centre of Excellence in Biomimicry (CEEBIOS) in Senlis, France, initiated in 2015. We started a thesis on bio-inspiration to study how to use a plug-in hybrid powertrain. We drew inspiration on cellular metabolism, which differs according to the physical efforts of athletes1.

In 2017, we launched a research project in collaboration with academic laboratories and the equipment manufacturer, Faurecia. The goal was to find innovative solutions to keep surfaces and passenger compartments cleaner. With the rise of self-service car-sharing and the possibility of taxi robots2, tomorrow’s vehicles will be faced with more problems of maintenance and quality of use than privately-owned vehicles. So, we came up with the idea of developing self-cleaning and self-repairable surfaces inspired by the superoleophobic cuticle that covers the body of the collembola, a very old small arthropod that inhabits dark and humid places.

And momentum is growing on a more global scale. Since 2017, the French Automotive Industry Platform has been bringing players in the French automotive industry created an exploratory working group on together to generate synergies in this field.

Why is the automotive industry interested in bio-inspiration?

 

Firstly, as a result of the general need to innovate, which is obviously inherent in any industrial system. Secondly, bio-inspiration is connected to two dimensions that resonate with the issues we are facing. First, the need for sustainability in the technological solutions we develop, because our industry consumes rare and non-renewable resources, even if they are recycled. And then, biodiversity itself, which is a gold mine of inspiration for our innovations, thanks to the numerous ingenious processes that nature has developed. And the loss of biodiversity makes this quest all the more important!

It is the application on an industrial scale that poses the major challenges. We have to adjust what nature can give us to our industry’s productivity-based approach. And the fact that cars travel at speeds different from those of natural systems, also demands adaptations. But in view of the urgent need to develop a sustainable industry, these imperatives will inevitably require us to review our conception of our activity, to redefine our modes of production, or even to change our notion of mobility.

What are the potential fields of application of bio-inspiration in the mobility-related industries?

 

We are continually striving to make our vehicles lighter in order to reduce their fuel consumption. So, we are working on both materials (fibres and composites) and on structures. We cannot easily reproduce everything that nature does, but 3D production may be an option for certain parts that are independent of factory production rates. In addition to self-cleaning surfaces, other surface functionalities can be bio-inspired for automotive applications: wettability, adhesion, self-repair, adaptive colour… Adaptive aerodynamics3 is another field for bio-inspiration that will be strategically important to increase the autonomy of electric vehicles on highways.

We could also mention the optimisation of the driving of autonomous vehicles in order to make traffic more fluid and collectively adapt their routes and behaviour. In this case, the model would be a swarm of insects or a shoal of fish, whose workings we are now beginning to understand.

In view of the scale of the environmental challenges, what needs to be done to prevent bio-inspiration from becoming just another tool?

 

Bio-inspiration can be viewed as something very opportunistic. We cannot remain in the realm of pure biomimicry, and we have to concentrate our developments on industrial processes, through a more global control of environmental impacts over the complete life cycle.

My concern is to bring about changes in our operational practices. A French standard has already been proposed on bio-inspired eco-design. For example, for the automotive industry, the goal is to adopt it and to create standards for bio-inspiration by design. We plan to take part in the distribution of this standard and to set up the corresponding in-house training courses.

We have to be both modest and obstinate. A complete innovation cycle lasts about 5 years, but the climate-related issues are urgent.

 

 

1This thesis gave rise to one of the 41 films in the “Nature=Future” series accessible on the Vimeo platform: “A More Human Engine”.

2Small, independent electric vehicles, available on-demand.

3Or vehicles that change shape and behaviour according to their speed, thereby reducing energy consumption when braking.

 

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This article was published in the sixth issue of open_resource magazine : “Towards a bio-inspired future

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