One number is pushing innovation in the North American auto industry: 351/2. That's the average mpg that the passenger vehicle fleet will have to hit by 2016, according to new rules announced by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The least-expensive way to improve fuel economy is to reduce vehicle weight, and reduce it everywhere so automakers are open to new ideas and new materials.
You go to the [automakers'] engineering offices and they want to take weight out of everything like cupholders, said Phil Sklad, field technical manager for the Department of Energy's lightweight materials program.
The EPA's new rules, formally announced Sept. 15, will begin to be phased in during 2012, and will surpass earlier congressional requirements for 35 mpg by 2020. The government is starting a required discussion period now for the regulations, with the expectation that they will become official later this year.
Sklad joined automakers and automotive industry watchers to discuss lightweighting during the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition, held Sept. 15-16 in Troy. While Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements are cited in discussions about a growing market for hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles, consumers are still going to want a range of vehicles both large and small, said Mike Jackson, director of North American vehicle forecasts for consulting group CSM Worldwide Inc. of Northville, Mich.
There's still going to be a place for an F-150 [pickup truck], said Jim deVries, staff technical specialist and manager of the manufacturing research department at Ford Motor Co.'s research laboratory. We know what we can do for fuel economy with small cars, but the different issue will be with trucks.
The new rules do not separate cars and trucks, unlike current regulations, which call for 271/2 mpg from cars and 221/2 mpg from trucks. Instead there will be one unified requirement.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford and other automakers will still make what consumers will buy, deVries said, and will need to supply those vehicles without sacrificing performance or adding too much cost. Carmakers will be looking at material and powertrain improvements simultaneously to meet those goals.
That call to lighten up will not automatically give a nod to traditional composites, however.
Five to six years ago, composites like [sheet molding compound] competed against steel in terms of weight save and cost, deVries said. Steel is no longer the standard [composites are] up against. Now it's other lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium.
Steel will still play a part, Sklad said, but carbon fiber is the plastics option getting the most attention now because it offers the biggest potential weight savings. It is also among the most-expensive options both for raw-material costs and processing.
General Motors Corp. of Detroit uses carbon fiber on its Corvette ZR1 model, but it's easier to justify the more-expensive material on a $106,000 car than on one that's less expensive, said Tadge Juechter, chief engineer for the Corvette and the Cadillac XLR sports car.
Lightweighting has to be affordable, Juechter said. You need to make the material at a low cost point.
Much of the focus on driving down the cost of carbon fiber will be in finding more efficient ways to process it, he noted.
The automakers also urged suppliers to look beyond body panels for potential markets for composites, for example, replacing steel for structural components, deVries noted.
Composites using lighter-weight natural composites instead of glass also are an option increasingly gaining interest, Sklad said.
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