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.
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.
Though it’s more of a guideline than a hard rule, the traditional consensus was that every 100 pounds added or removed from a vehicle translates into a mile per gallon difference in mileage, so Ford’s target could translate into significant savings in fuel.
It’s possible to find ways to slice out weight in an existing product, noted Kuzak, during a dinner conversation, like switching from a steel body panel to one made of aluminum or plastic. But to make truly major gains, “Weight reduction starts with new platforms,” the overall redesign of a vehicle, he stressed.
Ford’s former British subsidiary, Jaguar, was one of the more aggressive players in the weight reduction game, switching a number of models, such as the new XJ, from steel to lighter aluminum chasses and bodies. Ford has considered a similar approach for some of its products though the cost has been an obstacle.
Now, the industry is taking a close look at what could be the ultimate alternative to steel: carbon fiber, an extraordinarily strong and ultra-light material commonly used in Formula One race cars and a select group of road-going supercars from brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini.
“Carbon fiber has potential if we can come up with ways to improve manufacturability and bring down costs,” cautioned Ford’s engineering czar Kuzak.
That’s a major challenge but one many believe is attainable. Toyota experimented with a new method of weaving the fabric-based carbon fiber for its Lexus LF-A supercar. BMW, meanwhile, has invested in carbon fiber production with the goal of coming up with new ways to mass produce the material.
One of the good things about cutting vehicle weight – by whatever method – is that it generates what Kuzak calls “secondary benefits.” Strip 500 pounds out of a midsize SUV, he suggests, and you can migrate from a big V8 to a smaller V6, or perhaps even a four-cylinder version of Ford’s new EcoBoost powertrains.
The maker will soon offer a tiny 1.0-liter EcoBoost, a displacement – and weight – far smaller than what American makers have traditionally offered in mainstream products.
As anyone who has fought the battle of the bulge knows, trimming weight isn’t easy, but in a world where mileage has become a crucial factor, it is one Ford can’t afford to give up on.