I can’t help but feel the European automotive industry is in this position, setting itself on a steadfast course toward blind panic as it looks to tackle EU 2020 emission reduction targets. Back in 2012, there was loads of time. Even in 2015 everyone remained quietly confident. But now, here we are in 2017, and there is a quiet rumble of concern beginning to build.
There have been significant steps forward in materials and processing technology that have indeed enabled weight reduction to happen. And, yes, a few kilos saved here and there do add up across an entire vehicle. However, cars are kitted out with more technology than ever these days. Safety systems, electronics, hybrid drives, larger batteries, stop/start systems, satnavs, and large screen infotainment systems... the list goes on. It means that despite advanced materials being applied in a smart fashion, most vehicles weigh about the same as they did 20 years ago.
Take the VW Golf Mk4 (1997), with a kerb weight of about 1200kg. It’s almost exactly the same as today’s Golf of the same spec. The same is true of the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa. In some cases, cars actually weigh more today than two decades ago, despite all this investment and focus on lightweighting. So what has gone wrong?
The material science is no doubt coming along, but so many lightweighting activities are siloed. Applying a lightweighting strategy, systemically, to an entire vehicle has, to date, largely been avoided, other than by supercar manufacturers and BMW with its i3 and i8.
Industry must move past research and demonstration, and not just get lighter materials on to cars, but critically, significantly reduce the weight of primary structures, chassis and body-in-white. There is no silver bullet, and if you flick through the Spring 2017 issue of Engineering Materials you will see two varying chassis lightweighting approaches using steel and composites. Both proven to be advantageous and very possible. But, what needs to happen is for industry to adopt the innovation, and that can only come from the engineers.
It’s time to commit to a material’s strategy and start making meaningful progress. Time is ticking.