Lightweighting a Key To DOE’s EV Everywhere Grand Challenge

In March 2012 President Obama announced a “B-HAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for U.S. electric vehicle adoption: enable U.S. companies to produce plug-in electric vehicles that are as affordable and convenient as today’s gas-powered vehicles by 2022.

The EV Everywhere Grand Challenge was thus launched. In support of this initiative, the office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy hosted five workshops this summer to identify technology gaps and enablers to efficient EV design, covering such topics as power electronics, batteries, powertrains, auxiliary loads such as heating and air conditioning, and lightweighting.

The fifth and final (or “pent-ultimate,” as it was coined by Pat Davis, EERE’s program manager for vehicle technologies) workshop focused on two of the most important enablers of efficient electric vehicles: lightweight design and efficient heating and cooling. RMI, which has worked in both areas, joined fifty other specialists in Washington, D.C. last Thursday to weigh in.

RMI has recently focused particular attention on the challenge of lightweight material adoption in the automotive industry—cars account for about half of all U.S. oil usage. Lightweight structure, enabled by advanced materials, improves the efficiency of any vehicle, regardless of powertrain, and allows cars to be cost-effectively electrified. It all amounts to helping pave the way to a completely emissions- and oil-free transportation era as envisioned in RMI’s Reinventing Fire.

DOE was seeking stakeholder input regarding the greatest challenges and the areas where it could be of the most help. Coming up with innovative manufacturing techniques and advanced material car designs is often easy for the industry. The hard part is scaling those techniques and marrying them up with designs amenable to low-cost production. The divide between research and commercialization presents such a daunting challenge in the automotive industry it’s been called the “valley of death.”

One key idea discussed at the workshop was the establishment of a collaborative, advanced manufacturing demonstration facility to help bridge this divide. Such a facility would be a testing ground for emerging manufacturing technology associated with advanced materials. It would leverage the creativity and drive of the academic community (something similar to DOE’s existing Graduate Automotive Technology Education program) but also involve the national labs, automakers, and tooling manufacturers to innovate new high-speed manufacturing techniques and test the resulting parts to validate performance.

A shared facility would potentially address another challenge: lack of material standards and high-fidelity analytical tools. As parts are subjected to tests and studied, engineers can learn about complex material behavior and continuously use the results to make better predictions. Testing is relatively expensive, so virtual design and analysis tools that can reliably predict behavior can ultimately help with affordable adoption of advanced materials.

Advanced vehicles will likely consist of a mixture of materials, including metals, plastics, and composites, but a question of practicality arose at the workshop. Would a shared facility focus on just one type of advanced material? If so, which one?

At RMI we asked ourselves a similar question late last year.

Where applicable, carbon fiber composite offers unparalleled potential to produce lightweight structure while maintaining or exceeding vehicle safety, robustness, and performance. Once available with reasonable economics, carbon fiber composites can help catalyze a transformative shift to ultralight, ultrastrong autobodies in the automotive industry, spuring homegrown innovation and allowing the U.S. to benefit from the breakthrough technology that often originates within its borders.

That’s why RMI is bringing together automakers, manufacturers, and industry experts in Detroit on November 7-9 to identify, enable, and evaluate part-specific, near-term pathways to market that can kickstart widespread adoption of automotive carbon fiber composites. If we can get the first rope across the chasm between pilot-scale and commercial adoption, it could lead to a full-fledged bridge—ultimately an expressway.

Highlighted Resources
What Automakers Can Learn From Boeing’s Culture of Weight Reduction

Bells and Whistles Won’t Unlock Cost-Effective Auto Efficiency


Reinventing Fire: Transportation (Video)