To Meet Fuel Efficiency Standards, Car Companies Are Seeing the Light

Doing more by using less.
Nov. 26 2012 8:30 AM

Car Companies Are Seeing the Light

Automakers are experimenting with lightweight bodies and new engines to meet ambitious fuel efficiency standards.

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But all of that takes painstaking engineering and lots of R&D hours. The quicker, easier route to fuel efficiency, it seems, is the one Ford is pursuing with their lighter aluminum F-150: focus on the materials, not the mechanics.

And Ford’s aluminum trial is no outlier. This summer, the director of automotive marketing for aluminum giant Alcoa told the crowd at the American Metal Market's Aluminum Summit that increased calls for fuel efficiency will double the demand for aluminum by 2025. Sure, that’s what a director of marketing is supposed to say at an “aluminum summit”—but Alcoa’s $300 million investment in a Davenport, Iowa, plant that specializes in automotive products backs this up. So do numerous new car rollouts with full aluminum bodies. Range Rover’s 2013 American Land Rover model is taking the same approach as the Ford F-150 and getting the same result, trimming 700 pounds from what was previously a 5,500-lb SUV. Chrysler’s Dodge Ram and Chevy’s Silverado pickups are rumored to be getting the same aluminum overhaul in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

And in an effort to ensure that no light metal is left behind, GM has also begun experimenting with magnesium sheet metal to make car panels. According to one GM engineer, magnesium is 75 percent lighter than steel and 33 percent lighter than aluminum—though like aluminum, it comes with a higher price tag.

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And Ford is working on something that will surely offend the pickup purists: car hoods made of carbon fiber, a material favored by racing bikes that company engineers claim could offer ten times the strength of steel at a quarter of the weight. Next year, BMW will also hit the market with an electric car that boasts a full carbon fiber body, the first production vehicle of its kind.

Automotive concept challenges and engineering competitions have been adding energy to the industry push, too. Two years ago, a superlight concept car (literally called “the Very Light Car”) won a $5 million Progressive X Prize that tasked contestants with building vehicles that could achieve a mythical 100 mpg. (It got 102.5 mpg.) This year’s Michelin Challenge Design competition is titled “HALF! Lightweight with a Passion” and is (excitedly!) searching for ideas on lowering the weight of a family car “through materials choices and using the most effective manufacturing techniques.”

All of this new materials research and innovative approaches to reducing car weight, though, are just reducing the fuel problem—not solving it. Most of these vehicles—even the Very Light Car—still rely on the internal combustion engine and its baggage of bad state actors, finite capacity, and deleterious environmental effects.

But there is an alternative vehicle with a weight problem that could really benefit from all of this: the electric car. The heavy battery pack—the Nissan Leaf’s 660-pound battery accounts for about 20 percent of its weight—and subsequent hampering of battery efficiency is one of the most common complaints about the plug-ins.

If carmakers can continue to dramatically pare down the weight of car’s frames, hoods, and panels, it could provide the electrics with an immediate solution to their market problems while battery makers do the long work of lightening their own loads. And what started as a short-term fix for fuel efficiency just might end up offering some serious long-term benefits for fuel independence.

Dan Morrell is a writer living in Boston.

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