If today’s cars are getting fatter, as the statistics show, then one way to lessen the impact on efficiency and handling—and the curmudgeonly attitudes of enthusiasts—is to lighten the materials themselves by lowering the weight of the traditionally steel and aluminum panels that cars are made from. Carmakers know and want to do this. Problem is, this isn’t cheap. There’s a reason why the real exotic stuff—carbon fiber, Kevlar, space-frame chassis—are only reserved for the high-buck cars: it’s why the $229,000 McLaren has a MonoCell one-piece carbon fiber tub and your Ford Fusion doesn’t.
But Ford itself has a lofty goal: Cut the weight of all of its new cars by 750 pounds by the end of this decade. And, do so cheaply. Towards that end it has partnered with Dow Chemicals, especially their automotive division, to collaborate on engineering new composite materials that can be produced effectively and cheaply for the masses.
It won’t be easy. Despite both companies’ expertise—Ford in manufacturing and Dow in polymer processing—the goal is to develop a grade of carbon fiber that is strong and lightweight, easy to mass-produce, and cheap enough to make. Turkish carbon fiber manufacturer AKSA and the U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory are in on the act too, and ultimately the goal is to achieve 50 mpg in Ford’s electric and hybrid vehicles through efficient engines and lighter weight, without the tax incentives that still haunt electric vehicles.
“Ford is tackling the conversion problem primarily through downsizing engines with EcoBoost and electrification while mass reduction and improved aerodynamics are keys to reducing the workload,” said Paul Mascarenas, the chief technical officer of Ford’s Research and Innovation division. “Reducing weight will benefit the efficiency of every Ford vehicle. However, it’s particularly critical to improving the range of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles.”
Hopefully Ford and Dow can pull it off by 2020. Not just for the weight savings, the preserved safety standards, the increased fuel efficiency, and the overall boon to handling, but because then excited Ford owners can brag, “hey, my Focus is just like a $229,000 McLaren!”