Automakers Create Lighter Vehicles to Meet Efficiency Goals

The focus now is on fuel efficiency, with the goal for 2025 being an industry wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon. The fastest way to get there, of course, is hybrid technology, but consumers aren’t jumping on board in high enough numbers yet, so automakers have to be creative when finding ways to save on fuel consumption.

When asked just how important fuel economy is in today’s market, Margaret Wooldridge, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan said, “I think all the churn is on fuel economy, and the rest is window dressing to make sure (automakers) maintain or expand market share.” Automakers agree that fuel economy is right up there with safety. The question is how best to get the industry ready to meet the next goal.

A 1984 Honda Civic averages 47 miles a gallon, so grabbing a few extra miles seems like it should be easy. It’s not, says Woodridge. “If your only condition was build me a vehicle for 55 miles a gallon…two snaps we could have it done. But, now design me that vehicle that’s attractive, that has all the safety features, that has all the creature comforts that we’ve come to love and expect –my navigation systems, plug in my phone, power heating…of my steering wheel…so all those comforts add more and more constraints and more and more burdens that make this harder and harder.” The easy fix is to make the parts needed to perform all these functions lighter and more aerodynamic, which takes a lot of funding and research.

Ford Motor Co.’s Matt Zaluzec recently gave an NPR reporter a tour of the Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan. In an effort to make vehicles lighter and aided by funding from the Department of Energy, researchers are exploring the use of recycled money. Paper money is made of fiber, and old bills are discarded by the U.S. Treasury regularly. The old money can be pulverized and reused in plastics to make them tough and lightweight. New materials are not the only focus; they are also finding new uses for old materials like aluminum and additives that can be combined with steel to make it lighter and stronger.

Zaluzec explained, “The combination of materials—of steel, aluminum, magnesium and composites—for every part of the vehicle: the body, the closures, the chassis, the powertrain, the interior. To me, that’s a huge step. We’ve never done this level of material and manufacturing process integration in my 25-year career.”

As monumental as these changes are, they’re being made quietly. The ultimate goal is keeping standards and quality so high that customers simply know their vehicles are safer and more efficient without noticing any specific changes in materials at all.

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