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It's all about weight loss. Who's the biggest loser? Ford wants to be that car company. It recently introduced a concept car that looks like a Ford Fusion
but uses parts made of aluminum and other lightweight materials.
It applies lessons learned from the 2015 F-150 aluminum body and represents the third phase of a larger plan to improve fuel efficiency with advances that can be applied in nearly every vehicle in its lineup.
Lighter weight is significant because every 10% weight loss improves fuel economy by 3%-4%, said Pete Friedman, Ford manager of manufacturing research.
The annual Trends Report from the Environmental Protection Agency, released in December, shows the industry’s overall fuel economy improved by 11 m.p.g. from 1975 to 2013.
“We kill for 1% improvement,” said Matt Zaluzec, Ford technical leader for global materials and manufacturing research.
Alisa Priddle of the Detroit Free Press reports that Ford has studied new metals, alloys and composites for 25 years. One of the early test beds was the Ford GT high-performance sports car in 2005.
Now the 2015 F-150 marks a much deeper real-world application. Ford sold more than 760,000 of the truck last year and is betting that cutting 700 pounds from it will ensure its long-term status as the nation’s best-selling truck.
The Lightweight Concept car was developed with the U.S. Department of Energy and Cosma International, a subsidiary of supplier Magna.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to lightweighting,” Zaluzec said. “The Lightweight Concept gives us the platform to explore the right mix of materials and applications for future vehicles.”
Ford is looking at oil pans and seat structures of carbon fiber, aluminum, diecast magnesium for some valves, and a combination such as an aluminum block with a cast-iron insert. Polycarbonates and laminates reduce the need for heavier glass.
A carbon-fiber composite seat structure would cost $55-$73 compared with $12 for a steel one, but would be 17% lighter. The other challenge is reducing manufacturing costs, said David Wagner, technical leader for vehicle design. A steel part is stamped every six seconds while the injection-molded seat can take a couple minutes.
“These are the kinds of technologies you’ll see creep into vehicles over the next few years,” Zaluzec said.
The next step is testing the full vehicle. Ford is building several prototype cars that engineers will put through the wringer.
“We will break these parts and we will learn,” Zaluzec said.
The work has a domino effect. If a car weighs less, it can reach greater speeds with a smaller engine. The Fusion concept features a 1-liter, 3-cylinder engine.
The strategy is to introduce lightweight solutions on specialty vehicles first, then on higher-end Lincolns, then mass-market Ford models.
Is the auto industry's obsession with reduced weight worth the investment?