September 18, 2012, Eric Dahman
(Accutek recently attended the SPE Automotive Composite Conference & Exhibition in Troy, Michigan. My colleague and I attended a panel discussion regarding the future of automobiles. Here are some of my reflections)
Facing unprecedented government regulations concerning Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and Greenhouse Gas Emissions for newly manufactured, light-duty vehicles, automotive manufactures are confronting new challenges and now have a sense of urgency to make drastic changes to current vehicle models. With oil abundance decreasing and gas prices continuing to climb, these new regulations force automakers to nearly double average gas mileage and cut the amount of tailpipe emissions in half by 2025. To make matters worse, automakers could face heavy fines if they do not comply.
This topic was at the forefront during a panel discussion, which addressed the design and assembly of what the moderator dubbed the “multi-material vehicle.” The panel consisted of representatives from the following sectors: a Fortune 500 automotive manufacturer, Tier 1 composite suppliers, automotive research groups, and the founder/CEO of a private company whose mission is to produce feasible and sustainable transportation solutions for the future.
There were intriguing arguments on both sides. From the perspective of the manufacturer, the belief is that we must reduce the weight of current model cars and this is where composites will play a big role in the short term. Those speaking for the composite community believe to realistically achieve these government regulated efficiency goals, the solution is much more than just replacing the bulky metals used in the frame and components of the car with lighter weight composites; their general consensus is that we have to reassess how we think about and build the car of today.
As the CEO of the private company put it, “We have arrived at the need for a new automotive segment. This dragon can only be slayed by rethinking the car, not by cutting weight here and there. It can’t be done; not a 50% increase in fuel efficiency. This is the golden age to rethink our architecture. We need new engineers that will think boldly and creatively with new designs and are not afraid to understand these materials better than I do.”
The segment he referred to is a completely new, “very light” car design that pursues efficiency through the absolute virtues of low weight and low aerodynamic drag. This new design utilizes fewer components and advanced composite materials. Moreover, many parts used in the new design can weigh as little as one tenth the equivalent part in today’s car.
Here are some personal takeaways from this discussion regarding integration of major composites into vehicle structures:
1. Better Margins – More expensive materials can always be used to make better products, but they must be used cleverly. Better margins will convince automakers to incorporate composites in these new designs.
2. Education – The automakers will need to work with composite suppliers to learn about and better understand the material and its applications. The auto industry is historically a metal bending industry. Composites are molded, not stamped and represent a quantum shift in thinking for auto manufacturers.
3. Marketing – If there is no demand, there will be no profit. Composites provide greater freedom for shapes and intriguing designs. If the industry can find a shape consumers desire, they will want to buy these cars.
Automakers and their suppliers face a tough road ahead, but in the end, they will create a product that will change the face of America’s roads for the better. Better for our wallets, better for the environment and better for the future of our nation.