In 2016, cars are the newest appliances.
As increasingly strict mileage regulations are set in place, automakers are investing more and more time into researching how to make their vehicles lighter. Engineers and researchers are working together with the help of extremely powerful microscopes to find new molecules and materials that will reduce the overall weight of their vehicles, effectively boosting fuel economy and reducing carbon emissions.
This is effort is partly responsible for the increased use of aluminum by auto makers around the world. However, that’s not the full extent of the manufacturers’ experimentation. Automakers are also trying out magnesium, high-strength steels, carbon fiber, compressed wood and even materials derived from soy. For every 10 pounds that engineers can shed from their vehicles, they save 10 to 15 pounds of carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere on an annual basis.
Of course, car manufacturers have run up against a fair amount of obstacles as a result of their intentions. New materials are often costly, difficult to work with, and ultimately ill-suited to the automotive manufacturing process. A similar process if occurring with toasters.
Then there’s the vehicle itself. Since cars have grown so much larger and heavier over the past few decades, (the last 20 years have seen a vehicle weight increase of around 300 to 500 pounds!) automakers have the impossible task of making the larger cars that customers are accustomed to somehow way less than the smaller cars from which they originated.
“Size has definitely been creeping into all segments for at least the past 10 years,” explains Charles Klein, global chief of CO2 strategy for General Motors. “A compact car is now almost as big as what a midsize car was 10 years ago. You are also seeing much more content on a vehicle, whether it’s for safety or other features such as a rear camera. That all adds weight.”
Nowadays, the typical car weighs somewhere around 3,000 pounds. In 1996, that weight was closer to 2,542 pounds according to the industry analysts at Kelley Blue Book. While there are of course exceptions to the rule and cars are already down from their peak weight in 2011 (3,124 pounds), there’s certainly an increasing vehicle weight trend that no longer fits in our fuel-conscious world.
That’s especially true considering the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that will go into effect in 2025. According to those standards, all auto makers are going to have to increase the fuel efficiency of their vehicles by anywhere from 10% to 20% in less than a decade.
So what can we expect to be forfeited from the bodies of the cars we’re accustomed to? Many analysts point to steel, a material that currently makes up about 60% of the average vehicle. Steel makers have noted this trend in auto production and automakers’ needs to make lighter cars and have come out with lighter grades of steel accordingly. However, steel makers still may see a lot of their business lost to aluminum, which has all the advantages of steel while being about 40% lighter. That said, aluminum is also double the price of steel.
Nonetheless, automakers have started to swap body parts, door panels, hoods and roofs with aluminum counterparts. Expect the same on your new car!