DETROIT — Sometimes, it's not just about the weight.
While Lacks Wheel Trim Systems LLC's new eVOLVE wheel concept does reduce the weight of a traditional aluminum or steel wheel, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based auto supplier says it is aerodynamics that provides the final push in a proposal that would improve fuel performance by 1.1 miles per gallon in its tests.
"Just taking the weight out of the wheel is not enough," said James Ardern, Lacks business development director, during an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Jan. 15. "We found that in creating more aerodynamic shapes, we added weight, but improved performance."
Those aerodynamic improvements come courtesy of a hybrid-material part, which builds on an aluminum structure, then adds a high density foam and a polycarbonate/ABS top coat, which is then given a chrome top coat for aesthetics.
Chrome is a specialty of Lacks Enterprises Inc., the parent company of Lacks Wheel Trim. The company counts itself as the largest produced of chromed plastics in the North American auto supply base, and its Wheel Trim Systems business has been a key supplier to the auto industry, giving the chrome polish to aluminum and steel wheels.
Two years ago, the company decided to invest big time in developing a new market within the automotive wheel business, however, looking at what else it could provide to an industry looking to squeeze more miles out of every gallon of gasoline.
In the U.S., a new federal standard requires automakers to hit a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallons by 2025, a move which is prompting automakers to reconsider weight and design.
Lacks based its development tests and prototypes on a Ford Motor Co. Focus sedan.
"Wheels are the black hole for fuel performance," said Jim Zubkus, director of sales and marketing.
The aerodynamic issue for improved gas mileage takes a close look at the openings in every wheel. Those openings are needed to help cool the brakes under pressure, but at high speeds, they interrupt the flow of air around the vehicle.
By using foam and PC/ABS to reshape the outside of the wheel, Lacks' eVOLVE keeps the air moving swiftly past the vehicle, improving performance.
Traditional steel and aluminum would add too much weight to make the aerodynamics worthwhile, Ardern said, but foam doesn't add much weight, and the PC/ABS provides the perfect surface to give the wheel its traditional chromed shine.
The final wheel still comes in 4.5 pounds lighter than a traditional steel wheel, he noted.
Lacks is not alone at looking at the potential to improve wheel aerodynamics and fuel performance. Ford Motor Co.'s new Atlas pickup-truck concept, also introduced Jan. 15, places active shutters on the wheel.
The shutters deploy across the wheel openings when the truck is in motion, keeping the air flowing smoothly across the wheels. When the driver hits the brake — or the truck is stopped — the shutters fold back out of the way.
Ford would use the power from braking to power the shutters.
At Lacks, the eVOLVE is getting a lot of attention from automakers, just a month after the company first began showing it.
"Clearly, there are people looking at this area for development," Ardern said.
Lacks has been hearing from interested automakers since it first rolled out the eVOLVE in December, and the company expects that will only grow as the CAFE requirements build.
"Fuel economy will drive this," Zubkus said.