The struggle for fuel economy is the future of car manufacturing. Federal fuel economy standards are becoming increasingly strict especially for newly manufactured vehicles. Emissions must be reduced, fuel economy increased, and sales must continue to rise.
So it’s no surprise that many automakers have gone back to the drawing board when it comes to the design of their cars. The large, heavyweight steel-built chassis of days past are long gone.
Today, manufacturers are attempting to reduce the weight of their cars by whatever means necessary. Using advanced polymers, electronic control systems, and lightweight metal chassis and component designs, to name a few.
Of these, new materials are the most promising frontier. Manufacturers are increasingly looking towards exotic plastics, carbon fiber, and other advanced materials to maintain safety standards and provide exceptional driving experiences while reducing weight and increasing fuel economy.
Plastics And Composites Are Reshaping Car Design
It has been estimated by an IHS study that the average car will incorporate over 350 kilograms of plastics up 75% from 2014 when the average was only 200 kilograms. Usage of more exotic and expensive carbon fiber will also increase an estimated 9,800 metric tons in 2030, compared to a mere 3,400 in 2013.
Plastics are just part of the puzzle when working in tandem with other weight-saving components and designs made out of lightweight aluminum, fiberglass, and other additives. Their mechanical properties and stability can be massively increased.
Governmental Emissions And Fuel Regulations Are At The Heart Of Material Innovation
In the US the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) regulations are mandating an average passenger vehicle fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg by 2025. In 2008, the average across all brands was a miserable 27.5 – barely even halfway to meeting this standard.
Companies have redoubled their efforts since then. According to the research by IHS Automotive, the overall weight of cars must be reduced by 30 percent or more to reach both US and European standards for fuel economy and emissions. In addition to hybrid power trains, electric vehicles, and downsized turbocharged engines, lightweight materials must be incorporated into passenger cars.
While this number seems difficult to reach, it is within reason. Use of carbon fiber and polymer matrix materials could enable total car body weight reductions of anywhere from 25 to 70 percent.
Combined with currently existing automotive best practices for machining lightweight metal components, an increase of the application of plastics, composites, and carbon fiber certainly seems like the best path forward when it comes to reducing the weight of passenger cars.
Carbon fiber remains expensive and so is primarily used in racing applications, but a recent innovation introduced by Bayer Material Science in 2013 could be promising for lower-cost lightweight vehicles.
Their lightweight material is built of a combination of structural foam, glass fibers, and polymers, providing a class A surface with the structural integrity of a comparable metal or carbon-fiber body part at only a fraction of the cost of exotic carbon-fiber materials.
Beyond currently known techniques, there is also much investigation into decreasing the weight of cars by replacing glass in windows and other components with synthetic plastics which is a practice already commonplace for many manufacturers of headlamps.
The Future Is Lightweight And Fuel Efficient – But Has A Limited Supply Chain
As the usage of advanced polymers continues to grow, there’s one primary risk at play. The limited supply chain that the plastics industries rely upon to maintain the distribution of advanced materials.
It’s expensive for new competitors to rise in the field, and a disruption in the production capabilities for a plastics manufacturer could be devastating, as seen in the 2011 Evonik Industries AG fire and explosion, which was chiefly responsible for providing “nylon 12” for automotive applications.
The worldwide industry took nearly two years to recover, and for Evonik to resume production of nylon 12 at the same rate as it had before the accident.
So, though the benefits are great, and the law requires the innovations, there are some risks for automakers who rely on advanced plastic components and materials. Let’s hope that the plastics industry continues to grow alongside the automotive industry and so that we don’t outpace it.