DETROIT — The automotive industry is on a crash diet, with designers looking for every opportunity to trim an ounce here and there from the overall weight of each vehicle.
Why the urgency in lightweighting and interest in different materials? The drive is sparked by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets set by the U.S. government, which call for the standard fuel consumption to climb to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
That term, “54.5 by 2025,” has become a handy reference phrase, although the process of getting there is a little more complicated. There are a series of incremental steps automakers must meet every year.
The topic was spotlighted at Plastics News' 2015 Plastics in Automotive Conference, held Jan. 14 in Detroit.
Suzanne Cole, president of Washington-based management consulting firm Miller Cole LLC, noted that lightweighting efforts aren't just a North American phenomenon, but are going on worldwide. Miller Cole specializes in legislative and regulatory affairs, advocacy and government funding for corporate technology R&D and manufacturing.
“We are trying to lightweight vehicles and improve performance,” she said.
The global effort to reduce CO2 emissions also is relying heavily on alternative vehicles that run on hydrogen, electric or a hybrid gasoline engines. Cole noted that in the future, more U.S. vehicles will be hybrids.
“The primary reason for this is because the automakers receive credits for this,” she said.
A key benchmark for the CAFE targets is coming in 2017, when a midterm review of technology will be performed. It is something the plastics industry will keep a close eye on.
“This will determine if the 2021-2025 phase remains technically feasible,” Cole said. “This is expected to be one of the most important aspects of the fuel economy program.”
While lightweighting efforts continue to ramp up, Cole said it seems the brakes have been applied to electric vehicles.
“We have seen some backpedaling on the goal of 3 million electric vehicles by 2025,” she said.
The auto industry has made strides toward better fuel economy and reduced emissions. Cole noted that in 2014, for the first time, half of all vehicles manufactured get more than 23 mpg, while no vehicle gets less than 13 mpg.
As the industry continues to move forward, its efforts will continue to include more aerodynamic designs, alternative fuel and energy options and lightweighting.
The plastics industry can play a key role as it develops innovative new materials.
“The automakers also must learn that they cannot just plug and play,” Cole pointed out. “They can't use the same manufacturing processes to build a fuel-efficient vehicle.”
This effort to determine lightweighting options will lead to an increased focus on materials research.
“The automakers can realize advantages by using carbon fiber in structures, but money can be a hurdle,” Cole noted.
In mainstream vehicles, Cole added that an optimization of materials currently is taking place. “It isn't the material that matters, but rather the part.”
Going forward, plastics companies serving the OEMs will be able to gain a competitive edge if they are able to come up with solutions that enhance lightweighting efforts.
“In the coming years, you are going to see a separation between the winners and the losers,” Cole said.