Let’s face it—nobody in the automotive industry actually loves the idea of the 54.5 mpg (40 mpg in real-world driving conditions) vehicle fleet average mandated by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. That number was not arrived at via scientific analysis; it was a mandate pulled out of the ether and made into law with little regard for science. But when the mandate came down, engineers had to quickly figure out how this potentiality could become reality.
Of course, this is often how innovation happens: Engineers are asked to achieve something they never thought of or thought possible. Through materials research, processing trial and error, and the marvelous use of plastics—the material “greens” love to hate—manufacturers came up with exciting new ways to lightweight vehicles. (It must really frost the “greens” that it requires the use of more of that dreaded plastic to help cut vehicle emissions!)
According to a Wall Street Journal article from March 6, 2017, “EPA to Undo Fuel-Economy Goals,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “is near reversing an Obama administration decision to lock in future stringent vehicle fuel and emission standards after automakers lobbied the agency’s new chief to reopen a review of the regulations.” Vehicle makers want the standards “relaxed under the Trump administration after the EPA decided to keep them roughly a week before Inauguration Day.” Environmental groups want the standards kept in place, but those standards are scheduled for review.
Now that so much money and R&D resources have been spent to meet a mandate that few— except the folks at EPA—really liked or thought possible, what will be the cost to unwind all of this? And now that we’ve come this far, how can we take the best of what has been accomplished and continue to incorporate new technology into vehicles that will be truly beneficial, and throw out the rest? Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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In September of last year, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) issued a study, "Assessing the Fleet-wide Material Technology and Costs to Lightweight Vehicles," to provide insight into the technology and cost to reduce vehicle weight for the U.S. fleet of light-duty vehicles. CAR collected actual automaker data on lightweighting technology, rather than using models that extrapolate projected estimates, from more than 1,000 vehicle models with differing levels of inherent technology. “The average baseline of today’s lightweighting technology in the U.S. fleet is largely unknown,” said the introduction to CAR’s study.
Obviously, all the R&D that has been performed over the past eight years has its benefits. There’s certainly nothing wrong with developing new automotive technology and materials, and plastics play a huge role in this. Lightweighting vehicles isn’t all bad, unless some vehicles become so small and light that they are a danger to drivers. However, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRPs) have proven to be a tough material with a density that is slightly stiffer than steel at one-fifth the weight. “Carbon laminate density is so low, it even beats the lightest structural metal, magnesium, which has a density of 1.8 grams per cubic centimeter,” said an article in Live Science (March 9, 2016).
The article points out that the carbon laminate manufacturing process is complex and requires either manual labor or expensive robotics, which results in higher costs for the finished parts. A number of years ago, I did a plant tour at the Hexel manufacturing facility just south of Phoenix, and saw the hand lay-up process of the woven layers of nearly pure carbon fibers bonded together by epoxy resin required to build the SR-71 Blackbird. It was quite a long process that included up to two days or more for the polymer epoxy resin to cure.
This process would be used on high-end vehicles like the BMW i8 electric supercar with a fully carbon fiber chassis, or the McLaren 570S with an all-carbon body and a price tag of $185,000 (not exactly cars for the masses). Costs for lightweighting vary, the study noted, depending on companies’ “developed history of specializing in certain materials, which will bias their options for the lowest cost lightweighting pathway. Lowest cost for one company is not necessarily lowest cost for another one. A company’s tolerance for risk, technical knowledge base, modeling software capability, and available supply chain can direct a company to one material over another.” Estimates from the CAR study projected by the National Research Council show a “range from $0.44 to about $1.18/pound for a 10% lighter vehicle.” When multiplied by 10% of a 4,000-pound vehicle, the cost would range from $176 to $472 per vehicle.
Making a cost-effective lightweight vehicle for the masses requires increased injection molding using CFRP for the strength needed to survive an under 35-mph crash. Much of the technology advancement in materials and processes developed under the CAFE mandate is still viable for “best-use” scenarios, and not because automotive OEMs are being forced into creating vehicles to meet some near-impossible goal to achieve some dubious result, i.e., the elimination of CO2 (which would also mean the elimination of oxygen).
The whole lightweighting effort hasn’t been in vain, even if the CAFE standards are rolled back to some more reasonable, science-based level. There are many beneficial advances that have come out of these investments that can result in lower overall costs of ownership for consumers, and maintain the clean air results the United States has achieved over the past few decades.