When I was a kid copywriter on the Volkswagen account, grumpy but thorough VW engineers drummed one tenet of green into me: You don’t save gas with secret carburetors which the oil companies hide. You save by shedding weight. The less weight to push around, the less energy is needed to do the pushing. From the First Law of Thermodynamics to Einstein, all will agree. Like we agree on the need for a balanced diet. Then we go to the next Wendy’s, and order a triple Whopper. Despite the wisdom, cars tend to gain heft over the years like an erstwhile skinny Italian bella ragazza after the age of 30.
With tougher environmental regulations spreading across the globe, and CO2 mutating into a climate-ogre from something that used to provide the fizz in a soda, automakers remember the old engineering rule: Less weight, less gas, less crud.
The challenge is to build cars light and safe at the same time. It can be done. But it’s tricky. Building cars that dissipate energy during a crash is one part. Using lightweight, but strong materials is another.
“The ability of automakers to incorporate lightweight materials into their vehicles will go a long way toward determining their global competitiveness,” The Nikkei [sub] says.
Japan’s Toray entered a joint venture with Daimler to develop carbon fiber parts.
Toyota plans to introduce several new materials for its Lexus LFA sports car, slated to be ready to buy by the end of the year. Small windows will be from polycarbonate, 30 percent lighter than glass. The LFA will use carbon fiber inside and out.
Nissan has adopted aluminum alloys for the doors and roofs of its sports cars.
BMW AG joined up with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers to produce carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in the U.S.
Volkswagen is increasingly using aluminum for its luxury brands, such as Audi and Porsche.
However, shedding that heft comes at a hefty price. Literally. The new lightweight materials don’t come cheap. Nobody knows that better than Volkswagen. More than 10 years ago, in 1999, they launched the Lupo 3L, which had its name from the fact that it used only 3 liters of gas for 100 km. Which comes out to 78.4 mpg. (U.S. gallons, not the imperial stuff.) The car used light-weight aluminum and magnesium alloys and weighed-in at only 1,830 lb. Market research showed that the car would fly off the lot. Then it just stood there. It did not move. It was too expensive. For the same price, people got a bigger car with more oomph. The Lupo 3L was quickly buried. Critics said it was a green washing experiment. It wasn’t. They honestly meant it. But they overlooked another immutable law in the auto business: People love to save the planet when asked by a researcher. People love to get the best bang for the buck when it comes to buying.