By Scott Fallon
Automakers face a daunting challenge. To meet new government standards, they must increase the overall fuel efficiency of their vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That’s up from a 35.5 mpg standard by 2016, a nearly 60 percent increase in less than a decade.
And they must do this while creating affordable cars that people want to buy.
To meet this challenge, automakers are focusing on design efficiencies and increasingly turning to advanced, lightweight materials. These materials include plastics and lightweight composites, such as the carbon fiber-reinforced plastics used in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Why? It’s simple. Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics are up to:
- 10 times stronger than steel
- 50 percent lighter than steel
- 30 percent lighter than aluminum
We already use these lightweight plastic composites for sports equipment (have you seen a wood tennis racquet lately?), as well as prosthetic limbs, fishing rods, bicycle frames, wind turbines, motorcycles, helicopters, passenger jets, race car chassis … The family car is next.
At the recent SXSW Eco conference, I participated in a panel discussion with a former automaker from Ford, a leading energy-efficiency researcher and an engineering school president. We discussed how cars will become substantially greener and leaner in a decade, due in large part to advanced lightweight materials such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.
As a “plastics guy,” it is worth noting: While most news reports simply refer to “carbon fiber,” the fibers typically are enmeshed with plastics to form an advanced composite matrix. The combined materials create something much tougher than each could be on their own.
The message we brought to Austin at SXSW Eco: Dramatically increased fuel efficiency will save natural resources, slash auto emissions, cut our nation’s dependence on petroleum and save consumers money at the pump.
The million-dollar question is: Can light-weighting really achieve those benefits? Automakers think so. Here’s Ford on light-weighting (emphasis added): “Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities – acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency – can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.”
Future lighter-weight cars will accelerate faster, have more agile crash avoidance handling, stop in shorter distances, enhance driver and passenger safety – plus become more fuel efficient, which should reduce emissions and lighten their environmental footprint.
And based on automakers’ recent concept cars using these advanced materials, future cars also will look cooler and just be a lot more fun to drive
Now, what’s interesting is that carbon fiber-reinforced plastic auto components are not new: chassis, spoilers, roofs, hoods, and many internal and external parts have been employed for a while, predominately in higher-end luxury or performance cars due to high manufacturing costs. But as automakers invest heavily in these applications, costs are coming down, and new technologies should allow these components to be produced more quickly.
That’s going to come in handy. To reach 54.5 by 2025, automakers will need to continue to improve drive trains and engine efficiency – and drastically reduce weight. Plastics are helping. Many people don’t know that modern cars already are 50 percent plastics by volume but only 10 percent of vehicle weight. That volume will increase significantly.
We should also see an increase in solutions that involve an intelligent mix of materials, instead of choosing between metals and plastics, for example. Automakers are discovering that hybrid structures with lightweight plastics can be very effective in reducing vehicle weight.
These multi-material solutions with lightweight plastics can improve safety, too, as can carbon fiber-reinforced plastic components, which can absorb up to 12 times more energy than steel and enhance safety in a collision.
As noted, automakers have already used various types of advanced composite materials in cars for some time. But BMW and Ford were the first out of the factory with production volume cars that use the latest carbon fiber-reinforced plastics for major components.
In 2014, BMW introduced the i3 in the U.S., an electric car that sold out immediately. The i3 is the first mass-produced car built on BMW’s LifeDrive architecture, consisting of a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic ‘Life Module’ that acts as a safety cage for the occupants. BMW declared that carbon fiber-reinforced plastic is “an especially light and high-strength material that provides outstanding protection to vehicle passengers in the event of an emergency.”
The company has announced a joint venture to triple capacity at its carbon-fiber production facility in Moses Lake, Washington, making it the world’s largest carbon-fiber facility. It also plans to use “the ultra-lightweight, high-tech material for other model series at competitive costs and in large quantities” as economies of scale kick in.
In March 2015, Ford unveiled the all-new GT: a high-performance, production-volume sports car loaded with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. The GT’s passenger cell is made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, and its front and rear subframes are wrapped in structural body panels of the same composite. Ford says this composite “is one of the world’s strongest materials for its mass – enabling an ultra-stiff foundation for chassis components, while creating a lighter overall package for increased dynamic performance and efficiency.”
Ford says it will use this technology broadly across its future lineup: “GT includes innovations and technologies that can be applied broadly across Ford’s future product portfolio … [For example] the all-new GT features advanced lightweight composites, which will help serve Ford’s entire product lineup moving forward.”
And other automakers are pursuing similar advances.
Reaching 54.5 mpg in a decade will be the result of an ongoing collaboration between automakers, government, academia and materials makers. I’m proud that my company is involved in that collaboration. And I look forward to celebrating success in 2025.
Image credit: Pixabay
Scott Fallon is General Manager of the Automotive Segment at SABIC, the world’s third largest diversified chemical company with more than 50 years of experience in the automotive industry. SABIC is a member of the American Chemistry Council Plastics Division’s Automotive Team.