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Automakers Press on with Lightweighting Plans

Lightweighting tops the list of strategies automakers are using to meet the challenge of improved vehicle fuel economy ahead of the 2025 CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards implementation. That is among the key findings of the seventh annual Ward’s Automotive Trends survey, conducted by Penton Market Research and sponsored by DuPont.

The annual survey polled nearly 750 automotive sector employees and finds that lightweighting and the use of lightweight structural materials continue to lead the list of technologies respondents are most focused on to meet the 2025 CAFE standards. Engine efficiency programs came in second. Vehicle electrification technologies came in third (mild hybrid/start/stop) and fourth (full hybrid/plug-ins) respectively, both demonstrating slight gains over 2016.

Plastics Hold Promise

Primary target for lightweighting (© 2017 WardsAuto, Dupont Automotive Trends Benchmark Study)

Though aluminum remains the most-cited material choice for meeting the 2025 CAFE standards, automakers have sharpened their focus on engineering plastics as a lightweighting tool, which increased by 5 percentage points year-over-year – the single-largest increase in material choices versus 2016 – while interest in multimaterial solutions retreated by 4 percentage points. Advanced composites like continuous fiber and carbon fiber took fifth place, behind advanced, high-strength steel. “In addition to enabling innovations in passenger safety, comfort and convenience, plastics have been delivering lightweighting solutions for more than 30 years,” said Brian Fish, North American automotive marketing manager, DuPont Performance Materials. “The newer emerging technologies like advanced composites hold promise. However, by engaging material suppliers early in the design process, there are still many opportunities for lightweighting with existing materials.”

The vehicle powertrain remains the most-cited focus area for vehicle lightweighting efforts, up two points from 2016, with the chassis running a distant second. The survey spotlighted another change worth noting: the rise in vehicle interiors as a lightweighting target, interest in which practically doubled year over year. OEMs are introducing creative lightweighting solutions to help differentiate vehicle interiors, contributing to passenger safety and comfort and improving utilization of space through the use of new materials in these critical areas.

Vehicle electrification was the big winner in this year’s survey, posting gains across the board. As a technology focus for meeting 2025 CAFE, interest in electrification more than doubled over 2016. When asked which electrification system was getting the most attention and resources, respondents put hybrid vehicles and pure electric vehicles on equal footing. For the first time this year, the survey asked respondents whether the push for autonomous vehicles was impacting their R&D spending. Surprisingly, nearly half of respondents reported that autonomous vehicle research has negatively impacted other areas of research and development spending.

CAFE in Question

Currently under review, the 2025 CAFE standards require automakers to deliver a fleet average of at least 54.5 mpg by 2025. A midterm review by the American Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is designed to determine the industry’s technological readiness and ability to implement the standards at an acceptable cost. A final decision is anticipated in 2018.

The standards’ future looks uncertain, a sense that was echoed in this year’s Wards Auto survey. Nearly 40 % of survey respondents, in fact, said they expect the standards will become less stringent. By contrast, in 2016, 86 % of respondents said they expected the standards would strengthen or remain the same.

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