Vehicle Lightweighting

When the 2015 Ford F-150 rolled into dealers, it looked similar to previous models, but under the paint was a major change. The traditional steel body had been replaced by one made almost entirely of aluminum.

Automakers are adopting aluminum alloys and other lightweight materials to shave pounds off their vehicles in order to meet stringent federal fuel economy standards.

To comply with the new regulations, car companies plan to downsize engines, improve aerodynamics and sell more electric and fuel cell-powered vehicles. But one of the biggest changes will be reducing weight. Components are being retooled in lighter high-strength steel, aluminum, plastic and composites. Every pound counts, as studies have shown that reducing vehicle weight by 10 percent can improve gas mileage by 6 to 8 percent.

Ford isn’t the first car company to use aluminum for weight savings. More than a decade ago, the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ sedans were lightweighted with aluminum frame and body structures. Today, many automakers are adopting aluminum and other lightweight materials such as carbon-fiber for selected body panels.

BMW’s new i3 electric car may be the poster child for lightweighting. The compact four-seater weighs a svelte 2,635 pounds despite carrying a 500-pound battery pack. This was accomplished by using a carbon-fiber passenger compartment and aluminum subframes that carry the battery and powertrain.

Despite using some similar materials, you needn’t worry that modern vehicles will crumple like soda cans. Lightweight cars and trucks will still be safe thanks to high-strength metal alloys and high-tech composites such as carbon-fiber. These materials can be just as strong as heavier materials, and with proper engineering they are often even better at absorbing collision impact energy.

Although motorists save on fuel, lightweighted vehicles will likely carry higher sticker prices to cover the increased material costs. However, experts say the added expense will be more than recovered in fuel cost savings over the life of the vehicle. Collision repair costs and insurance premiums may also go up due to special training and equipment needs, though some experts believe the difference will be minor since the portion of most insurance premiums devoted to collision repair is small.

In the end, both consumers and the environment will benefit from lightweighted vehicles. That’s a diet we can probably all agree on.