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Will New Mileage Rules Force Shift from Steel to Carbon Fiber?

Survey says industry leaders expect more changes in the basic automotive building blocks.

by on Aug.02, 2011

Lamborghini is making "heavy" use of lightweight carbon fiber for the new Aventador super car.

With only minor exception, today’s cars are made out of the same building blocks as Henry Ford’s Model T.  Sure, the wooden floor boards are gone and there’s a lot more plastic – with a bit of aluminum and magnesium thrown in — but today’s cars continue to rely on steel, glass and rubber for the majority of their mass.  And mass is going to be one of the biggest enemies as the industry aims to meet the new federal fuel economy standards.

Getting to 54.5 mpg will require major changes in every aspect of automotive design, industry leaders stress, with a heavy emphasis on what’s under the hood.  But a new study finds that the mileage mandates will likely trigger a material revolution, as well.

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“Clearly CAFE regulations have confronted the industry, but they’ve also driven focus around technology needs, material demands and cost issues,” said David Glasscock, global automotive technology director for DuPont Automotive, which commissioned the new study.

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Nissan Wants to Trim Vehicle Weight By 15%

But increasing government mandates could offset gains.

by on Jul.12, 2011

Nissan trimmed 150 lbs off the weight of the new Versa sedan and hopes to cut mass by 15% on future products.

When the new Nissan Versa sedan rolls into showrooms, in the coming weeks, motorists might notice it’s a bit more svelte, despite adding decidedly more cargo and interior space.

The Japanese subcompact is 150 pounds lighter than the vehicle it replaces, reflecting a conscious effort to put the second-generation Versa on a diet.  Indeed, Nissan has set a corporate goal of trimming at least 15% “off the weight of every vehicle” it develops, going forward, says Vice President of Product Planning Larry Dominique.

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That’s a critical step in the maker’s efforts to meet consumer demands for better mileage – and rapidly increasing government fuel economy mandates.  But it also underscores the conundrum makers like Infiniti face.  Even as they use smarter designs and lighter materials to reduce mass, tougher regulations – particularly when it comes to vehicle safety – force engineers to add content that only packs the weight back on.

The industry continues to discover a variety of ways to improve fuel economy, notes Dominique, such as 8-speed gearboxes, advanced turbocharging and direct injection.  But improvements to the internal combustion engine “are reaching their limits,” he stresses, “so we have to lighten up.

On a midsize car, goes conventional engineering wisdom, a 100-pound reduction can yield at least an extra mile a gallon.  So on a 3,000 to 3,500 pound vehicle like a Nissan Maxima, a 15% drop would be substantial.

How to get there is the challenge.  Makers like Nissan have been turning to lighter-weight materials, such as aluminum, magnesium and advanced plastics.  And even when they use steel they’re switching, where possible to thinner, high-strength alloys.  But “there’s a significant cost to that,” Dominique cautions.  “I could make all my seat frames out of magnesium, but I couldn’t afford it.”

Automakers see carbon fiber as a sort of Holy Grail, as it is incredibly light and phenomenally strong.  But, for now, it remains impossibly expensive, suited only to ultra-expensive models such as the Lexus LF-A supercar build by Nissan’s rival, Toyota.  Like all so many other executives, Dominique says he is hoping that, going forward, new manufacturing processes will be developed to bring carbon fiber into the realm of mainstream automakers.

There are other ways to reduce weight, noted the Nissan planner.  The new Versa has about 20% fewer parts and components.  In some cases, developers were able to shift to one large piece of molded plastic where three might have been needed in the old sedan.  And that reduces overlaps and eliminates fasteners that can yield a 5% savings, according to Dominique.

Meanwhile, by trimming the weight of the overall body, for example, Nissan might then be able to switch to smaller brakes and a lighter, less powerful engine.  The new Versa migrates from a 1.8-liter inline-four to a new 1.6-liter engine.

The Japanese marque is by no means the only manufacturer pursuing significant weight reductions.

“In the mid-term, from now to 2017 or 2018, we’ll remove anywhere from 250 to 700 pounds depending on the vehicle,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product development chief.  (Click Here for more on Ford’s program.)

But such numbers can be misleading.

Nissan proposed weight reductions refer to apples-to-apples comparisons – that is, assuming that the next-generation Altima, for example, were to feature the same levels of content as the outgoing model.  But that seldom happens.

For one thing, consumers continue to demand more and more content, whether it’s larger, more powerful infotainment systems or new, heated/cooled seats.

Add to that what the government continues mandating, such as the latest roof crush standards.  “We know that keep adding weight to the car,” lamented Dominique, during an interview following a drive in the new Versa.  “And that will offset much of the weight we hope to save.”

Ford Planning to Slash Vehicle Weight Up to 700 lbs

Trimming mass a key to meeting future fuel economy goals.

by on Apr.19, 2011

Ford products - big and small - will be going on a diet, with a goal of cutting weight by as much as 700 pounds.

Ford Motor Co. plans to put its product line on a diet.  The maker expects to trim 100s of pounds off the weight of its cars, trucks and crossovers over the next half-decade in a bid to dramatically improve fuel economy.

The move won’t be easy, Ford officials warn.  The cuts will come even as consumers demand more content and features – and regulators pack on more safety devices.  And the lighter substitutes for conventional  materials, like steel, could add to vehicle cost.

“In the mid-term, from now to 2017 or 2018, we’ll remove anywhere from 250 to 700 pounds depending on the vehicle,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product chief.

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The move attempts to reverse course for Ford, which has faced the same dilemma as its competitors.  The typical automobile is today hundreds of pounds heavier than a similar model of a decade ago.  That reflects the addition of such creature comforts as onboard navigation systems, 15-speak audio packages and heated leather seats – as well as airbags, advanced braking systems and the complex safety structures required of modern cars.

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