Drastic lightweighting on the agenda

  • 22-Jun-2012 06:42 EDT
Audi A3 Materials 2.jpg

Lightweighting proponent Audi applied a “right material at the right place for optimal function” strategy for its new A3, so the car uses a mix of relatively thin-walled, form-hardened steels that make up 26% of an A3’s body materials and many aluminum parts including the hood and fenders. Not shown are other novel uses of plastic, for the front passenger airbag housing, and magnesium, for the MMI human-machine interface monitor bracket.

Upcoming fuel economy and emissions regulations around the world, notably in the U.S. and Europe, are forcing OEMs to think drastically about vehicle efficiency. One example of this radical rethink is the announcement in April that Ford and Dow Automotive are teaming up to bring low-cost, high-volume, carbon-fiber composites to next-generation vehicles. Cutting the weight of new cars and trucks by up to 750 lb (340 kg) by the end of the decade is a key component of Ford’s strategy to improve fuel efficiency.

Carbon-fiber composites have been used in aerospace and motor racing for decades due to their unique combination of high strength and low mass, but these materials are still too costly for high-volume mainstream auto applications. Researchers from the two companies will focus on establishing an economical source of automotive-grade carbon fiber and developing component manufacturing methods for high-volume automotive applications.

The joint-development effort will leverage work that Dow has already begun through partnerships with carbon-fiber manufacturer AKSA and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. If the joint development effort is successful, carbon-fiber components may begin appearing on new Ford vehicles in the latter part of this decade.

The auto industry has already started reversing the weight-gaining trends of the past few decades, with a recent example highlighted in an AEI Online article at www.sae.org/mags/aei/11121 that looks at how Audi engineers have tackled mass reduction on the new A3. According to Dr. Olaf Köhler, Head of Lightweight Design, “at Audi, reducing weight is a mind-set and a core competence. With each new model, we seek to reduce weight still further; we look at every gram, and the new car is 80 kg lighter than its predecessor. It was a huge challenge.”

Köhler emphasized that Audi applies “the right material at the right place for optimal function.” So the car uses a mix of relatively thin-walled, form-hardened steels that make up 26% of an A3’s body materials, many aluminum parts including the hood and fenders, plastic for the front passenger airbag housing, and magnesium for the MMI human-machine interface monitor bracket.

A feature in the July 3 issue of AEI (page 20) called “Light and mighty” looks at other innovative ways to reduce vehicle weight while maintaining vehicle safety—with the U.S. EPA’s 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) target of 54.5 mpg as a backdrop.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that [U.S. NHTSA’s] position is that it will accept zero compromise in terms of safety as you make these cars more fuel-efficient. And if lightweighting is one of your solutions, it will not accept any compromise in vehicle safety in terms of its crashworthiness,” said Dr. Jay Baron, President of the Center for Automotive Research and Director of the Coalition of Automotive Lightweighting Materials (CALM). The coalition was formed earlier this year with support from the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group and the American Chemistry Council to combine the strengths of the aluminum and plastics/composites industries with tech providers in design, fabrication, and joining in support of the OEMs’ efforts to reduce vehicle weight.

The lightweighting conversation continues with our special webcast on the topic of “Reducing Weight While Maintaining Vehicle Safety” on Aug. 29. Sponsored by Infotech Enterprises, 3M Automotive, MSC Software, and ArcelorMittal, the event will address the key enabling technologies necessary to achieve the CAFE standards of 54.5 mpg in 2025. For more information, visit www.sae.org/mags/aei/webcasts.htm.

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