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Lightweighting is the Buzzword in Building Fuel-Efficient Cars

Incorporating lighter materials may trump alternative powertrains and fuels

By Sarah A. Webster 
Editor in Chief  

I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- are you listening?

In 1967, when “The Graduate” came out, that word was plastics.

Today, it’s this: Lightweighting.

If the automotive industry is going to meet the new federal rule of 54.5 mpg for light-duty vehicles for the model years 2017-2025, “lightweighting is obviously the pathway of choice.”

So says Jay Baron, PhD, president and CEO, Center for Automotive Research.

Talk all you want about all-electrics, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel cells or alternative fuels, from diesel to biofuels. Lightweighting is the fastest, most resource-effective way of getting there.

Baron was speaking today at a “Clean Energy Program” forum sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn.  Pew is hosting a series of Clean Energy Programs nationwide to highlight the effects of climate change and the solutions to this global problem. Pew also has put out a report, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?” which can be found at Lightweighting

Other speakers at the event included Doug Baker, PhD, owner and CEO, TECAT Engineering Inc. and a member of SME; Brad Markell, international representative, United Auto Workers;  and Andrew Smart, director of Industry Relations, Society of Automotive Engineers International. The event was moderated by Phyllis Cuttino, director, Clean Energy Program, Pew Environmental Group.

The forum was a wide-ranging discussion on how the industry intends to meet new fuel-economy standards. There was no debate about the need for the standards. Cuttino noted what many in the industry now seem to acknowledge: dependence on foreign oil is an obvious security and financial risk for the US. So the speakers focused on the technical challenges in meeting the new requirements.  

Baron noted that automakers are focusing on three major parts of the automobile:  the body, suspension and chassis, and powertrain--each of which represents about 25% of a vehicle’s weight.  Within that, he said, the body represents the primary area of opportunity for weight reduction, which is already leading to an increased amount of aluminum in vehicles.

“You’ll start seeing aluminum doors soon,” Baron said.

But he noted the ultimate solution will include a car made of mixed materials, and getting there will require more collaboration than currently exists between the steel, aluminum and composites industries. He noted that the composites industry, in particular, is dominated by chemists and large companies such as Dow and BASF that are still learning how to do business with the auto industry.

For that reason, CAR has created a Coalition for Automotive Lightweighting Materials (CALM). More information can be found at

“There’s a great opportunity to make a mixed-material vehicle,” Baron said.

New problems also need to be addressed, such as joining parts that may react to one another and ensuring longevity of new materials and their bonds.

Despite the current focus on lightweighting, Baker and Smart said efforts continue to optimize fuel injection and the combustion process.

One of the biggest challenges in reaching the targets, the panelists also seemed to agree, was in finding enough engineers to do the work that is necessary to re-engineer the industry for improved fuel economy.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Smart said.

Contact Sarah A. Webster at


Published Date : 9/18/2012

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