Auto industry steps up use of lighter materials to boost gas mileage
DEARBORN, Mich. — Roofs made of carbon fiber. Plastic windshields. Bumpers fashioned out of aluminum foam.
What sounds like a science experiment could be your next car.
While hybrids and electrics may grab the headlines, the real frontier in fuel economy is the switch to lighter materials.
Automakers have been experimenting for decades with lightweighting, as the practice is known, but the effort is gaining urgency with the adoption of tougher gas mileage standards. To meet the government's goal of nearly doubling average fuel economy to 45 mpg by 2025, cars need to lose some serious pounds.
Lighter doesn't mean less safe. Cars with new materials are acing government crash tests. About 30 percent of new vehicles have hoods made of aluminum, which can absorb the same amount of impact as steel. Some car companies are teaming up with airplane makers, which have years of crash simulation data for lightweight materials.
Ford gave a glimpse of the future last week with a lightweight Fusion car. The prototype, developed with the Department of Energy, is about 800 pounds lighter than a typical Fusion thanks to dozens of changes in parts and materials.
The instrument panel consists of a carbon fiber and nylon composite instead of steel. The rear window is made from the same tough but thin plastic that covers your cellphone.
The car has aluminum brake rotors that are 39 percent lighter than cast iron ones and carbon fiber wheels that weigh 42 percent less than aluminum ones.
Because it's lighter, the prototype can use the same small engine as Ford's subcompact Fiesta, which gets an estimated 45 mpg on the highway.
The car won't be in dealerships anytime soon. For one thing, it's prohibitively expensive. Its seats, for example, cost up to $73 apiece because they have carbon fiber frames. The same seats with steel frames are $12.
Still, prototypes are helping Ford and other companies figure out the ideal mix of materials.
“These are the technologies that will creep into vehicles in the next three to five years,” said Matt Zaluzec, Ford's technical leader for materials and manufacturing research.
Some vehicles have made the leap. Land Rover's 2013 Range Rover, which went on sale last year, dropped about 700 pounds with its all-aluminum body, while the new Acura MDX shed 275 pounds thanks to increased use of high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium.
Ford has unveiled an aluminum-body 2015 F-150 pickup, which shaves up to 700 pounds off the current version. The truck will go on sale this year.
The average vehicle has gained more than 800 pounds during the last 12 years and tops out at just over 3,900 pounds, according to government data. Not only have cars gotten bigger, but safety features such as air bags and more crash-resistant frames have added weight. General Motors' Chevrolet Volt electric car has to drag around a 400-pound battery.
Morgan Stanley estimates than shaving 110 pounds off each of the 1 billion cars on the world's roads could save $40 billion in fuel each year.
“Lightweighting is going to be with us for a long time,” said Hesham Ezzat, a technical fellow at GM. “Every manufacturer is going to have to leverage their entire palette of materials.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Overhaul possible for West Mifflin’s Century III Mall
- Chevron settles fatal shale well fire lawsuit, state claims for nearly $6M
- Pitt study suggests health law attracting young to balance insurers’ risks
- No end in sight for casino market saturation in northeastern U.S.
- Weak first-quarter economic report anticipated
- Google adds HBO access, mobile payment to next version of Android
- Avago Technologies to pay $37 billion for chipmaker rival Broadcom
- UPMC offering buyouts to 3,500 employees in cost-cutting move
- Task force to plot ways of easing gas glut in Pennsylvania via pipelines
- EDMC to close quarter of its Art Institute campuses, but Pittsburgh’s spared
- IRS cybersecurity breach touches lives of homebuyers, others