Car makers increasingly turn to lightweighting for fuel economy gains

The trend for lightweighting of materials and component parts is growing in the automotive industry as car makers look to improve fuel economy within their fleets, according to a DuPont-backed study.

Car manufacturers are placing increased value on lightweighting and the use of leightweight structural materials to drive fuel efficiency technologies in order to meet ever tougher emission targets. Other measures being adopted by car manufacturers to help lower emissions are engine efficiency programmes, vehicle electrification and diesel engines.

Previously, fleet fuel economy gains have been made in this industry through downsizing and turbocharging engines, and introducing more advanced transmissions.

The research, which was undertaken among professionals working in automotive-related design, engineering, engine service, research and production disciplines, found that more certain standards such as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards) were a key driver – particularly in the US. Tougher emissions rules are due to be phased in from 2017 to 2025 and the majority of respondents (66%) believe standards could get more stringent as a result.

The study also found powertrain systems – the main components that generate power and deliver it to the road surface such as the engine, transmission and drive shafts – were the primary target for lightweighting. Aluminum remains a popular choice for lightweighting, but advances in technologies are seeing car makers also turn to engineering plastics, advanced composites and multi-material or hybrid solutions.

However, these more novel materials have yet to be commercially proven. When asked to rate their confidence in the ability of such materials to help meet increasingly stringent emissions regulations, half of respondents said they were only “moderately confident”.

According to DuPont Automotive Technology director Jeff Sternberg, this ambivalent assessment suggests car makers need to work more closely with their material suppliers to drive innovation.

“There is no silver bullet – every part and vehicle system faces a different set of requirements – but it is pretty clear that the automotive design and engineering community needs more support from advanced materials suppliers to reduce vehicle weight,” he said.

“The most effective approach involves value chain collaboration to understand the needs and develop new materials, new designs, new manufacturing methods – or all three – to find solutions.”

DuPont is working on to develop a range of thermoplastic composite technologies that can combine strength and stiffness into lightweight structures to replace metal. The company is also researching renewably-sourced materials that offer the same or better performance than petroleum-based alternatives.

Maxine Perella

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