"To add speed, add lightness," said legendary car driver and designer Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus.
The late Colin Chapman, the revered race car and sports car designer, is often credited with the quote “To add speed, add lightness.” If he were alive today, he’d likely put more emphasis on that maxim than ever as a central tenet in the push for better fuel efficiency.
Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars, was known for his clever techniques to reduce weight in both his race cars and road cars. His belief was that a light car could beat more powerful ones because its chassis would handle better. And he was right. Lotus won seven Formula One Constructor titles under Chapman.
Today’s automakers face a far different challenge than Chapman. Instead of speed, auto companies are working furiously to increase fuel economy, but most of the work is focused on more efficient powertrains, not reducing weight.
Jay Baron is amongst those who think they’re making a mistake. Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said reducing weight might be even more important than increasing powertrain efficiency because no one knows what powertrain technology will win out, but lighter vehicles will help with efficiency no matter what is powering the car.
A primary way to save weight is using lighter materials. Baron said there are essentially five materials in play here:
• mild steel, which is the predominate material in most cars, costing about 30 to 50 cents per pound.
• high-strength steel, which is about double the cost of mild steel but can be made thinner to provide the same strength.
• aluminum, which costs about $1.50 per pound, but is significantly lighter than steel. Besides the cost disadvantage, it’s more difficult to form and weld.
• plastics, while the prices vary wildly based on material and purpose, plastic is far more expensive than other materials and takes longer to mold.
• magnesium is another material finding its way into vehicles, but it is even more expensive than aluminum.