Picture one of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid cars. The energy stored in its current battery pack is used to power the car during low speeds, assisting the internal combustion engine.
If Toyota were to use the same battery pack in the same car, but have only the electric drive available, it would take three Prius packs to cover 121/2 miles. To cover 62 miles, it would need 10 packs.
With Toyota investing heavily in hybrids as a core technology, that example makes it clear that the auto industry needs breakthroughs in both batteries and materials so future cars will be lighter and get more out of each kilowatt and every gallon of fuel, according to Ankil Shah, manager of materials engineering and development at the technical center of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc.
“To solve these challenges, we believe more material development is required,” said Shah, during a Nov. 9 presentation at Plastics News' Plastics in Lightweight and Electric Vehicles conference in Livonia.
The auto industry is investing heavily in a variety of new and lighter parts to create cars that go further on less. New U.S. regulations call for corporate average fuel economy standards of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025, about double the existing CAFE rate.
While available credits may help automakers meet those numbers, much of the work will rely on getting weight out of today's vehicles, bringing in improved engines and using more hybrid and electric vehicles.
Much of the buzz for the plastics industry has been in creating new ways to process carbon fiber that could be used in structural parts and other high-strength composites that can take over for metal parts at less weight.
Iron and steel make up 62 percent of the weight of a car, Shah said. Adding high-strength steel to the mix brings that figure to more than two-thirds of the weight. Plastics, in comparison, is 8 percent of the weight. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Toyota created a 925-pound carbon-fiber structure for its 1X concept car, as the Toyota City, Japan-based automaker looks at every possible avenue for improvement.
“We are aiming for the ultimate eco-vehicle that could go coast-to-coast on a single tank of fuel,” Shah said.
Carbon fiber and other high-end materials remain cost-prohibitive to wide-scale use today. Officials at Mazda Motor Corp. of Hiroshima, Japan, believe that when companies look out for individual grams, the kilograms naturally follow, noted Jim Tobin, chief marketing officer for Magna International Inc. and president of Magna Korea and Magna Japan.
The same thinking is true at Toyota, said Shah, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Toyota began using a new blend of its Toyota Super Olefin Polymer on the bumper fascia of the 2012 Camry, which is 20 percent lighter than the fascia on the previous vehicle.
“A number of technologies are being commercialized,” he said.
The industry needs to continue tweaking existing resins in addition to increasing the use of long-glass-fiber composites and carbon fiber, Shah said.
While hybrids will get increased emphasis from carmakers and continue to grow steadily, standard engines will still represent the biggest share of the U.S. auto market, said Michael Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain forecasts with Troy, Mich.-based LMC Automotive.
In 2015, LMC expects hybrids to make up 6.4 percent of the U.S. auto market, compared with less than 3 percent today.
All-electric vehicles, however, will make up just 0.6 percent. By 2020, hybrids will make up about 9.3 percent of the market and electrical another 1 percent, according to Omotoso.
Standard gasoline engines will continue to dominate the U.S. industry for at least the next 20 years, Omotoso said, in part because there are significant improvements already in the works for those cars, which sell for less than many hybrid and electric cars.