Business
4:25 pm
Tue June 10, 2014

Cars Shed Pounds In Race To Meet Fuel-Efficiency Goals

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 7:31 pm

The car industry is required to raise the average fuel efficiency of its vehicles to 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. But consumers have been reluctant to adopt hybrid technology that'll get the industry there quicker.

That means the car companies have to find other ways to get fuel savings.

If you were to guess, how important would you say fuel economy is to the car business? How much of the research and development is going into making cars more efficient?

Margaret Wooldridge, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, has a pretty good educated guess: "I think all the churn is on fuel economy and the rest is window dressing to make sure [automakers] maintain or expand market share."

That's what car manufactures say: Fuel economy is right up there with safety.

So, how hard is it to make cars more fuel efficient? A Honda Civic from 1984 got 47 miles a gallon. Achieving a few more miles per gallon can't be that hard, right?

"If your only condition was build me a vehicle for 55 miles a gallon ... two snaps we could have it done," Wooldridge says.

"But, now design me that vehicle that's attractive, that has all the safety features, that [has] all the creature comforts that we've come to love and expect — my navigation systems, plug in my phone, power heating ... of my steering wheel," Wooldridge says. "So all of those comforts add more and more constraints and more and more burdens that make this harder and harder."

A lot of attention is being paid to the kind of fuel your car is running on or whether you plug it in. But only about 3.5 percent of cars sold this year were hybrids.

Wooldridge says carmakers have to look at every strategy — make cars more aerodynamic, improve the engines and simply make the cars lighter.

"It's intuitive," she says. "You reduce the amount of material or you change it to something that's a lower density that can perform the same function. [That's] easy for us to say — a lot harder for us to do."

That harder part is taking a lot of money and research.

Matt Zaluzec gave me a tour of Ford Motor Co.'s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. Researchers here are finding ways to make vehicles lighter — every part of the car — using every material you can imagine.

Zaluzec picks up a what looks like a plastic car part. "This is chopped up money," he says. "Money is not paper. It's actually a fiber." The researchers here are chopping up money discarded by the U.S. Treasury and putting it into plastics as a strengthening material, he says.

Zaluzec was on a team that built a lighter-weight version of the Ford Fusion, a midsize sedan that's the same weight as a Ford Fiesta, a subcompact that's about 800 pounds lighter.

They got money from the Department of Energy.

The idea is to test how much weight they can take out and to start using what they learn right way. The push is to find not just new materials but new ways of using old materials. For example, using aluminum and putting additives in steel to make the car stronger and lighter.

"The combination of materials — of steel, aluminum, magnesium and composites — for every part of the vehicle: the body, the closures, the chassis, the powertrain, the interior," Zaluzec says. "To me, that's a huge step. We've never done this level of material and manufacturing process integration in my 25-year career."

Zaluzec and Dave Wagner, another Ford engineer, say there's a quiet revolution going on in the auto industry.

"We don't want [customers] to say, 'Wow, I'm going to get into a vehicle and it's got this material all over it,' " Zaluzec says.

Wagner notes that the Ford F-150 pickup has had aluminum hoods for more than 10 years. "But no one comes up to me and thanks me for putting an aluminum hood on their F-150. They just know," he says.

Zaluzec and Wagner say they're not expecting any thanks. Actually, they hope you don't notice.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The auto industry has to raise the average fuel efficiency of its vehicles to fifty-four and a half miles per gallon by 2025. Problem is, consumers have been reluctant to pay for hybrids that'll get the industry there quicker. That means the industry has to find other ways to get fuel savings. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on the car companies' weight-loss program.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: So if you're going to guess, how important would you say fuel economy was to the car business? Like, how much of the research and development and the sort of churn of ideas is going into making cars more efficient? Okay, here's a pretty educated guess.

MARGARET WOOLDRIDGE: I think it's all the churn. (Laughing) I think all the churn is on fuel economy and the rest is window dressing to make sure you maintain or expand market share.

GLINTON: That's what car people say - fuel economy, right up there with safety.

WOOLDRIDGE: Hi, I'm Margaret Wooldridge at the University of Michigan in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

GLINTON: Here's another question - how hard is it to make cars more fuel efficient? I mean, a Honda Civic from 1984 got 47 miles a gallon. That extra couple of gallons can't be that hard, right?

WOOLDRIDGE: If you're only condition was, build me a vehicle for 55 miles per gallon - two snaps, we can have it done.

GLINTON: Hey, if it were that easy we wouldn't be doing this story. Plus, we got about three minutes left, so here's the but...

WOOLDRIDGE: But, now design me that vehicle that's attractive, that has all the safety features, that have all the creature comforts that we've come to love and expect - you know, my navigation systems, plug in my phone, power heating, power heating of my steering wheel. You know, so all of those comforts add more and more constraints and more and more burdens that make this harder and harder.

GLINTON: A lot of attention is being paid to what kind of fuel your car is running on or whether you plug it in. Truth is, people are not buying hybrid cars - only about three and a half percent of cars sold this year were hybrids. Wooldridge says carmakers have to look at every strategy - make cars more aerodynamic, improve the engines and, simply, make the cars lighter.

WOOLDRIDGE: It is intuitive - you reduce the amount of material or you change it to something that's a lower density that can perform the same function. Easy for us to say, a lot harder for us to do.

GLINTON: That harder part is taking a lot of money and research. Matt Zaluzec gave me a tour of Ford Motor Company's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan. What they do in these labs is find ways to make cars lighter - every part of the car - using every material you can imagine.

MATT ZALUZEC: Let's walk through this lab. Hello, Mitch. This is the laboratory here. You're going to see a lot of plastics. It's focused on bio -based materials. This is some of our researchers actively working on bio -based research. This is one of the coolest things - you're not going to believe what this is made out of. So, well, if you - when I tell you, it'll pop.

GLINTON: OK so Zaluzec picks up what looks like a plastic car part.

ZALUZEC: This is chopped up money. (Laughing)

GLINTON: Oh, really?

ZALUZEC: Yeah. So money is not paper. It's actually a fiber. The Treasury Department chops up money and she's chopping it up further and putting into plastic as a strengthening material.

GLINTON: Zaluzec was on the team that built the Ford Fusion, which is a midsize sedan. That's the same weight as a Ford Fiesta, about 800 pounds lighter. They got money from the Department of Energy. And the idea was to test how much weight they could take out and start using what they learned right away. The push is to find not just new material, but new ways of using old materials. For instance, using aluminum and putting additives and steels to make it stronger and lighter.

ZALUZEC: A combination of materials - of steel, aluminum, magnesium and composites - for every part of the vehicle - the body, the closures, the chassis, the powertrain, the interior - to me, that's a huge step. We've never done this level of material and manufacturing process integration in my 25-year career.

GLINTON: Matt Zaluzec and Dave Wagner, another Ford engineer, say right now there's a quiet revolution going on in the auto industry.

ZALUZEC: We don't want them to say, wow, I'm going to get into a vehicle and it's got this material all over it.

DAVE WAGNER: We've had aluminum hoods on the F-150 for more than 10 years. But no one comes up to me and thanks me for putting an aluminum hood on their F-150.

GLINTON: They say they're not expecting any thanks. Actually, they hope you don't notice. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.