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Ford Fuel Economy Will be Won by Carbon Fiber, not Aluminum

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Look for fuel economy boosting carbon fiber in future Ford vehicles, but not aluminum.
Look for fuel economy boosting carbon fiber in future Ford vehicles, but not aluminum.

With the introduction of the new Ford F-150 and its lighter aluminum body work, many had come to the conclusion that Ford would introduce aluminum across the lineup to improve fuel economy.

Not so, says Ford Motor Company executive Joe Hinrichs. While the adoption of aluminum body panels does shave some 700 pounds off the weight of the Ford F-150, it wasn’t done for fuel economy. Of course, the new F-150 does have better fuel economy, but that’s really only a side effect of Ford’s real goal, to improve towing capacity. Given the same size engine, transmission, and brake system, shaving 700 pounds off the weight of the truck means that it can safely carry or tow 700 pounds more. For many truck owners, cargo and towing capacity is what makes or breaks the deal when considering the Ford F-150 over other trucks.

On the other hand, wouldn’t adopting aluminum body panels shave weight and improve fuel economy in passenger cars, as well? Indeed, it would, but there’s the question of economics. First, because passenger cars are so much smaller, the weight savings wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic, so fuel economy gains would also be less-than-stellar. Second, Ford wouldn’t be able to recover costs by switching over to an aluminum body on these smaller vehicles, and it certainly wouldn’t be able to pass on too much of these costs to the customer for such small fuel economy gains.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Ford is ignoring material changes in its passenger vehicles. Following the pattern of the BMW i3, Ford has been working with DOW Chemical to put more carbon fiber into mass production. The BMW i3, for example, features a CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) safety shell, just as durable as steel or aluminum, but at a significant weight savings. The end result is better fuel economy. For Ford’s part, I wonder how soon we might see a CFRP-based Ford Focus Electric with 200 miles range?

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