From Vision to Reality: Lighter, Stronger Vehicles

Amory Lovins likes to point out that our cars have gained weight faster than we have. This auto- obesity epidemic has become increasingly problematic as automakers aim to meet higher fuel economy standards and consumers bear the economic burden of fueling heavy steel vehicles.

Tackling vehicle fitness—cutting out weight, aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance—offers an enormous opportunity to not just boost fuel economy, but move our transportation system off oil altogether.

As outlined in Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire, the U.S. transportation sector can be oil-free by 2050 by improving the way our vehicles are designed, powered and used. The first step: make our vehicles lighter and fitter.

“No other area represents more leverage in the transition from fossil-fueled transportation,” said Greg Rucks, RMI consultant. “Efficient use, infrastructure development and alternative fuels are all built around—and positively influenced by—fit vehicles. In fact, vehicle fitness can make our cars and trucks 50 percent more efficient, even before electrification.”

A key innovation is a shift to ultralight but ultrastrong autobodies made of advanced materials. Not only do these bodies have the potential to be simpler and cheaper to manufacture, they will also trigger cascading weight savings. With drastically lighter platforms, propulsion systems can be smaller, lighter, cheaper, more efficient and, ultimately, electrified.

Several major automakers are exploring this competitive strategy and have started to use standard design and manufacturing techniques to wring weight out of existing models, often using lightweight metals like aluminum, plus incorporating plastics. But to achieve the weight reductions needed to get completely off oil, automakers must adopt an all new design and manufacturing paradigm built around the strongest, most lightweight materials currently available—particularly carbon composites.

“There is only so much lightweighting we can achieve with conventional materials,” Rucks said. “Instead of wringing the last bit of innovation left in current designs, the same amount of innovation and design effort could be more productively applied toward revolutionary autos that exceed 100 mpg with better safety and performance. Automakers who recognize this early will be in the best position to capture market share.”

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

For automakers, a shift to advanced materials requires significant retooling both in the boardroom and on the factory floor. According to Reinventing Fire’s analysis, achieving vehicles that reach 125-240 mpg equivalent requires complete restructuring of automobile manufacturing, including disruptive reinvestment in all-new auto plants and production processes.

“While clean-sheet integrative design yields the largest benefits, we can’t assume that Detroit can tackle plants, people, products and processes all at once,” Rucks said. “Now that Reinventing Fire has led to a refined set of solutions, RMI and our supporters have begun the process of addressing these barriers—first by getting the right people at the table.”

To address the numerous and complicated issues associated with “lightening up” the industry, RMI is planning a charrette to explore and understand the manufacturing and policy developments that will enable this transition. Participants ranging from automakers and policy experts to raw material suppliers and researchers will collaborate to identify specific innovations and supporting policies to help reduce the cost and risk associated with raw materials, production processes and regulatory barriers.

The charrette approach has been a successful hallmark of RMI. Most recently, the Institute identified the balance of system (BoS) costs—all of the costs of installing a solar energy system besides the solar panels themselves—as a key threat to widespread solar adoption and got to work finding a solution. The result: Increased focus on bringing down the BoS cost from within the solar industry and at the federal government level—illustrated in the map of our solar success story.

RMI will continue to work with partners and refine charrette parameters over the next few months. So far, they are encouraged by industry enthusiasm and support of donors and foundations who see the potential for industry engagements like these to drive the transition from coal and oil to efficiency and renewables.

“This is really where the rubber meets the road, and the recommendations made in Reinventing Fire come to life,” said Rucks. “Revolutionary lightweight cars can reposition the U.S. auto industry as a world leader, but only if we and dedicated partners commit to drive Reinventing Fire from vision to reality.”