Automotive Lightweighting Driven by Fuel Economy and Emissions

By Suzanne Cole

Miller Cole LLC

COURTESY/FORD MOTOR COMPANY

Ford debuted the lightweight carbon fiber Ford GT at the 2015 North American International Auto Show.

The cost and infrastructure the auto industry needs in order to integrate carbon fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) on vehicle structures and high-volume platforms is not there yet, but every OEM has an internal R&D program they are working on. Some OEMs, mainly European, are much further ahead on innovation and integration than other automakers, but significant strides are being made. With the continued support of the Federal Government through agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) in concert with the American Chemistry Council (ACC), manufacturers will benefit from advancements to take cost out of manufacturing and processing CFRP: mainly elimination of labor, in concert with energy-efficient manufacturing. Other roadblocks remain that have had manufacturers turning away from CFRP including lack of predictive engineering tools/data, multi-materials joining, non-destructive testing for manufacturing, failure detection for repair, recycling and high-speed automated processing/manufacturing of CFRP components.

In EPA’s analysis of vehicle lightweighting potential for the 2012 rulemaking, EPA significantly underestimated potential improvements from vehicle lightweighting. Several models in production today, including light duty trucks and passenger cars, have surpassed EPA lightweighting estimates. This is good news for the plastics industry overall as lightweighting is and will continue to be the enabler for OEMs to comply with strengthening GLOBAL fuel economy and emissions regulations and enable the following:

  • Fuel economy without loss of functionality
  • Engine downsizing
  • Improved performance and handling
  • Aerodynamics
  • Systems integration

The pace of technology innovation and cost reduction is accelerating in the automotive industry, and this is good news for manufacturers and processors in the plastics industry. The average plastics processor is growing its sales by 10 percent per year, given increased demand by the automotive industry.

Today, two-thirds of the weight of high-volume vehicles is steel; 10 years from now, it is projected that plastics will comprise up to 65percent of the weight of vehicles. CFRP currently is 5-10 times more expensive than steel, but five times stronger and 50 percent less weight than steel. Costs are expected to decline by 70 percent over the next 10-15 years, making CFRP a real contender in the global automotive industry for light-duty vehicles, as well as for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Standards are requiring technologies to come online very quickly and, given the risk aversion by most auto manufacturers, they want all the lead time they can get.

Automakers are contending that battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles are not being embraced (purchased) by consumers without significant incentives and – even in states where there are incentives – demand is declining. Technology has not leapfrogged as the Obama administration had projected for improved driving range (still at best 100 miles) and the lack of infrastructure for various methods of charging for plug-in electric vehicles, including fast workplace charging and hydrogen refueling stations, are not prevalent enough. Other factors, including mundane styling for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) and overall future fuel savings accrual, are highly uncertain and are contributors to the lack of consumer demand. In order for automakers to attract mainstream customers, costs need to be reduced and range needs to increase.

Suzanne Cole is CEO of Miller Cole LLC, a management consulting firm in Washington, DC, specializing in legislative and regulatory affairs, advocacy and government funding for corporate technology R&D and manufacturing. She has counseled corporate, nonprofit and international clients on transportation, automotive safety, chemicals, energy, environmental and public policy matters, including state and federal regulatory and legislative issues. She chaired five consecutive Global Automotive Safety Conferences for the Society of Plastics Engineers and Society of Automotive Engineers, which brought together automotive OEM, supplier executives and engineers with the medical and regulatory communities. For more information, email suzannecole@miller-cole.com.