Weight reduction in cars has reached a tipping point

A recent study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan surveyed nine major automakers with 44 different models of cars in 2015. The report concluded that if carmakers would like to reduce 15 percent of a vehicle's weight, they must resort to plastic materials, especially carbon fiber.

Claire
    Jan 12, 2017 3:12 PM  PT
Weight reduction in cars has reached a tipping point
author: Claire   

New materials in car manufacturing offer better quality and efficiency. We've seen luxury automaker Lamborghini partner with MIT to develop a next-gen sports car with ultra-light materials. A recent study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan surveyed nine major automakers with 44 different models of cars in 2015. The report concluded that if carmakers would like to reduce 15 percent of a vehicle's weight, they must resort to plastic materials, especially carbon fiber.

The report asked what materials carmakers would use for weight reduction in increments of five, 10 and 15 percent. The results showed that if they need to trim five percent, the first choice for parts will be high strength steel and aluminum, as metal systems are simply more familiar and easier to handle for automakers. Case in point: Ford Motors has already setup robust production systems for aluminum. However, when talking about 10 and 15 percent, the whole picture changes.

"If you really have to get lighter weight vehicles, there is a huge shift to composites, and especially carbon fiber," said Jay Baron, CEO of the research group. "Even in pillars and crossbeams and rails."

"In other words, the message to me was: We cannot get to a 15 percent lighter weight car without getting very aggressive with composites."

So why does reducing weight in cars matter? Because a lighter structured material could boost fuel efficiency. The US government setup the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to monitor such rates, which may increase steadily with a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. To meet that standard, carmakers need to carry out years of experiments to bring the weight down.

Although carbon fiber and composites are major choices for weight reduction, car companies are still hesitating to mass-produce their cars with the new materials. One reason is due to cost. Carbon fiber is a material with persistent stiffness, high strength, low weight, high chemical resistance and high temperature tolerance. Often used in luxury car models, it comes with a higher price and longer production time than metal parts—which can be stamped in seconds. By comparison, it takes several minutes for a carbon fiber component to go through molding and curing processes.

But another important reason is that many carmakers do not have the expertise to produce composites and do not want to pass the molding of key components to outside suppliers. When a mature and stable manufacturing system has been built up for years, any interruption, such as making car parts out of composites, would pose a challenge and disrupt standardization.

But moving forward, lighter material is the future. 

"They say, ‘We worked hard to get standardized processes, and now that we have them you want us to make a composite door?' It's not standard, so you're disrupting the process," Baron said.

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