Big automakers are acting way too cautious to meet the 2025 deadline to average 54.5 mpg, according to pioneering light-car designers.
If that's the average, it means car fleets are going to need some models that get many more miles per gallon than that. And it isn't easy, said Oliver Kuttner, founder and CEO of Edison2, which developed a gasoline-engine car that can top 100 mpg and won $5 million in Progressive Insurance's Automotive X Prize in 2010.
Since then, Edison2 has developed an electric car rated at 245 mpg.
“I do believe that the lowest-hanging fruit is to start to open your eyes to the possibility of changing systems,” Kuttner said.
He said mainstream automakers are in for a rude awakening. It takes at least five years — and a whole new approach to design — to accomplish the really big strides, he said.
“I would say the industry underestimates how hard it is to improve the gas mileage,” Kuttner said during the Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles conference. “As you get beyond 50 miles per gallon, it gets really hard. From 50 to 60 is hard. Sixty to 70 is much harder, and 70 to 80 is almost impossible.”
Kuttner joined Tata Technologies Ltd. designers Peter Davis and Raymond Peters, and Gregg Peterson from Lotus Engineering, to talk about super weight savings, during the conference, organized by Plastics News Nov. 6-7 in Livonia.
Kuttner calls the X Prize winner the Very Light Car. He thinks that within five years, Edison2 will produce about 10,000 cars a year in the United States. Since the car can be assembled in a warehouse-type structure, with a simple modular structure, he said the VLC could become a world car.
Peters, senior program manager at Tata Technologies, agreed with Kuttner about starting with a clean sheet. “The approach that has to be taken is not to start from what we know and change it. You have to start from zero and build it from there. It's a completely different way of approaching the problem,” he said.
At the lightweighting conference, Tata displayed an eMo concept car (for electric mobility), sporting thermoplastic body panels with molded-in color.
There are no welded parts; everything uses mechanical assembly.
The most obvious innovations are a panoramic windshield and roof, with no roof pillar, and an integrated rear window/rear light assembly, all made of polycarbonate. There is no trunk, but the rear seats flip down for storage space, Peters said.
Peters and Davis work at Tata Technologies' facility in Novi, Mich. Engineering teams from North America, Europe and India collaborated on the eMo. Tata Technologies is part of Tata Group, which also includes the Indian carmaker, but they work independently, with any automaker.
The eMo could get the equivalent of 150 mpg and carry four adults. In production it would cost about $20,000.
“To achieve what we attempt to do, you could not start with an existing vehicle,” Peters said.
A Lotus Engineering Ltd. study showed a combination of materials — aluminum, magnesium, plastic and steel — will be a key to reducing weight, said Gregg Peterson, senior technology specialist. He gave examples of sandwich structures to give high strength, crash resistance and weight savings. Coated plastic parts can be used under the hood.
Peterson is a member of a Lotus team that developed a vehicle body structure 37 percent lighter than one with a steel body. Lotus Engineering is part of Lotus Cars of Norfolk, England.
“One of our goals was to have each part have two or three functions — multiple functions for every part,” he said.
Ultralight aerogels foams give thermal insulation and acoustic dampening, Peterson said.
Kuttner said the engineers of the Lynchburg, Va.-based Edison2 focused on taking out weight and mass. “We reinvented what a car is,” he said.
One key development was creating a suspension system that fits entirely inside the wheels, instead of under the car, significantly cutting weight and taking up much less space, and allowing a flat floor by getting rid of the strut tower. “This suspension, we believe, will find its way into a number of production cars in the near future,” Kuttner said.
Kuttner also thinks plastics has a good future, not just from lightweighting, but because of social changes like car-sharing services in big cities.
“Plastic cars are going to become more popular, because people are going to give up the detail of the great personal palace of a car, to something that's easy and quick and convenient that you can use for a few hours and hand back,” Kuttner said. “Then somebody has to clean it, so plastics are definitely going to start to take over there because they can be designed to be more friendly for things like that.”
Kuttner, a real estate developer and race car enthusiast, said big car corporations keep their engineers in a straightjacket when it comes to radical changes needed to meet the corporate average fuel economy — or CAFÉ — standards.
“You have to be allowed to be free. And there are a lot of great engineers out there,” he said. “I think this shift will destroy some companies, and it will be also a great opportunity for the industry, a great opportunity of careers. It's the great opportunity for plastics.”
Kuttner acknowledged his team's roots in racing, where bigger and faster is better.
“But we're also humans. I actually believe that a consumer is perfectly happy to accept something slightly less than a Class A finish, if the price is right, and the service is right, and everything else works. And at that point, plastics are really special, and the tipping point is there.”