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Lightweight Cars Will Drive Fuel Economy Future, say Carmakers

Volkswagen XL1's fuel economy prowess has as much to do with its lightweight construction as with it's powertrain and aerodynamics.
Volkswagen XL1’s fuel economy prowess has as much to do with its lightweight construction as with it’s powertrain and aerodynamics.

Fuel economy in the automotive industry has been largely dependent on aerodynamics and powertrain enhancements, but lightweight cars are going to take us into the future.

Since CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards were first implemented by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), back in 1978, the main means of reducing fuel consumption and emissions has been via engine and transmission development, as well as aerodynamic enhancements, which explains how the Chevy Camaro, an American muscle car, between 1977 and 1986, was available with an engine as small as 88 hp.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since those days, and today’s Camaro is exceptionally powerful, over 300 hp, yet delivers fuel economy on par with some family sedans. Of course, this isn’t even a green car, so what about hybrid cars and clean diesels, for example? Industry experts tend to note that we’ve come as far as we can with powertrain enhancements, such as electrification, small-displacement turbocharged engines, and boxfish-inspired aerodynamics tweaks. So far, these developments have brought us ever closer to the CAFE standards, averaging 54.5 mpg by 2025, but something else is needed.

If car fuel economy is going to be won by anything, it’s going to be lightweight construction. Ford recently proved this with an all-aluminum body on its best-selling Ford F-Series, saving some 700 pounds off the original steel body, but it also said that it wasn’t considering the lightweight material for its automobile lineup, citing costs, which brings up why lightweighting is such a touchy subject. Paul Krajewski, General Motors Engineering Group Manager, remarks that the “biggest challenge is the cost / value proposition to the customer. We have methods to achieve CAFE standards, but they require adding cost to the customer.” Ford’s solution will be the implementation of more carbon-fiber and CFRP (carbon-fiber reinforced plastic), and General Motors has been toying with magnesium sheet metal.

Of course, improving vehicle fuel economy is mechanically possible, but another important part has to do with the consumer. Of course, some people spend more on “green cars” because it’s the responsible thing to do, but even those people balk at the more expensive, yet cleaner, options. Jon Riley, National Center for Manufacturing Sciences Vice-President of Digital Manufacturing, says of this change, “The biggest challenge to meeting CAFE standards will be the consumer cultural shift the necessary technologies will impose… People will have to get use to smaller cars made of advanced and expensive materials… and to styling driven more by aerodynamics than by market research.” Riley admits, however, that “these things may not be readily embraced.”

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  1. Lightweight is the future of cars. The industry needs to keep safety in mind as well. Thank you for bringing this to light.

  2. “People will have to get used to smaller cars made of advanced and expensive materials”

    Smaller cars, yes, like in Europe, but why is this guy trying to scare people with the word “expensive?” All 3 French manufacturers and Volkswagen have 69 mpg (US, EU 3.4 l/100 km) diesel cars, and they are some of the cheapest too.

    Most American cars are just at the start of what they can achieve, they can get much more efficient and lighter without expensive materials at first. They can get even lighter and more efficient using these materials, but the gain in weight translates into big savings in dollars too: A lighter car means a smaller engine, smaller brakes, powertrain, cooling, etc.

    It is mostly hybrid cars that are more expensive, in part because they hold both ICE and electric technology, but they are still lighter and more efficient than the most efficient diesel cars for a given model. You can also have hybrids without keeping the ICE associated weight and cost, with cars that run all electric, just with a gas generator to provide more electricity when needed. The Chevy Volt would be a great concept if it had a bigger battery than 40 miles or a much lighter weight than 3,800 pounds.

    • yes, there ARE 70 mph affordable cars, but no one in America wants to drive them. There’s a huge jump to be made in the conscience here. Also, we’re talking about getting the AVERAGE fuel economy up, not just a couple of models, which is going to require lightweighting across the board, which is going to turn soccer-mom’s $50,000 minivan into a $55,000 minivan, and we’re going to have to stop buying pickups, which is just ridiculous.

      also, point of correction, the new Chevy Volt 2.0 is supposed to have an ALL-EV range somewhere around 50 miles and on-gas fuel economy around 41 mpg. Many current Volt owners don’t use any gasoline at all. https://www.greenoptimistic.com/chevy-volt-racks-ev-miles-nissan-leaf-20131126/


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