What’s the best way to get better mileage out of our automobiles? Make them as light as possible.
Think car roofs made out of carbon fiber, bumpers created from aluminum foam and windshields made out of plastic. The fact is, even though hybrid and electric cars are in the news, lighter materials are the real “final frontier” for fuel economy.
Known as “lightweighting” among automakers, experiments have been going on for decades to bring that weight of automobiles further and further down. With the new, tougher gas mileage standards that have recently been adopted the effort has definitely gained a bit of urgency of late. The fact is that most cars will need to lose a lot of pounds in order to meet the government’s 2025 fuel economy goals.
For those people that are concerned, the fact is that lighter cars don’t mean cars that are less safe. In fact, many of the cars being made with these new, space age material are doing quite well in government crash tests. Roughly 30% of the new vehicles already being made today have aluminum hoods that are as impact resistant as steel, and a number of auto manufacturers have teamed up with airplane manufacturers in order to get their data from years of lightweight material crash testing.
Developed in concert with the US Department of Energy, the Ford Fusion lightweight prototype car weighs approximately 800 pounds less than the Fusion already on the road, thanks to carbon fiber instrument panel, a rear window made from the same thin plastic that covers cell phones and aluminum brake rotors that are nearly 40% lighter than cast iron.
Due to all of these lightweight materials the new Fusion can use the same engine as the Ford Fiesta, an automobile that gets about 45 mpg on the highway already.
Of course the one drawback that it has is that these lightweight materials are ridiculously expensive. For example, the carbon fiber frames used for the seats are approximately $73 each, compared to the steel frames normally used that are priced at approximately $12.
This isn’t stopping automobile manufacturers however as they are constantly looking for newer materials that not only shave weight but also cost.
Matt Zaluzec, the technical leader for materials and manufacturing research at Ford, says that “These are the technologies that will creep into vehicles in the next three to five years.”
The 2013 Range Rover from Land Rover is a great example. When it was put on sale last year it featured an all-aluminum body and other lightweight components that enabled Land Rover to make it 700 pounds less than its predecessor.
It’s been estimated by Morgan Stanley that, if 1 billion cars on the world’s roads rose today were made lighter by only 110 pounds, upwards of $40 billion would be saved in fuel every 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.”
So it seems that, even if they might not be looking for the better, renewable fuels, at least auto manufacturers are doing their best to design cars that are lighter and use less of the fuels we are already using.