Wednesday, August 24, 2011: 03:58:23 PM

Greater Need for Fuel-efficiency Promotes the Use of Lightweight Materials in Cars

The automotive industry is gearing up for a game-changing shift to lighter materials to conform to environmental regulations. To assuage growing concerns about excessive greenhouse gases, governments all over the world have been passing laws mandating a reduction in carbon emissions. These laws have resulted in the lowering of vehicles' weight through the replacement of heavy materials in certain systems with lighter alternatives, as the weight of the automobile has a direct bearing on its fuel efficiency.

A 10 per cent reduction in vehicle weight offers fuel savings of 5 to 7 per cent in miles per gallon (mpg), provided the vehicle's powertrain is also downsized.

New analysis from Frost & Sullivan ‘Prevalent Substitution Trends within Materials and Chemicals in Automotive Lightweighting’, finds that the market earned revenues of $38 billion in 2010 and estimates this to reach $95.34 billion in 2017.

The greater incorporation of lightweight materials will help European OEMs to reduce emissions from the current levels of 160 g/km to 130 g/km by 2012-2015. Similarly, American automakers have to achieve the set average fleet fuel efficiency target of 35-39 mpg by 2016 with the passing of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulation.

’While these laws go a long way in easing environmental concerns, they also challenge OEMs to find innovative solutions to comply with them and still stay profitable,’ says Frost & Sullivan Senior Research Analyst Sandeepan Mondal.

For instance, the end-of-life directive in Europe compels automakers to minimise the waste created when a vehicle reaches the end of its useful life. On one hand, it encourages the incorporation of recyclable lightweight materials in passenger vehicles and on the other, it hinders the market growth of thermosets and carbon composites. 

Lightweight materials do decrease the overall weight and emissions, but it also hikes the costs considerably. The business of both OEMs and tier-I suppliers took a hit during the economic downturn and in such unfavourable economic conditions, they will hardly be enthusiastic about shifting from a metal-based assembly to alternative materials.

The numerous regulations related to fuel efficiency, low carbon emissions and end-of-life are likely to remain stringent over the next ten years. Non-compliance with them will invite hefty fines, which will further strain OEMs' margins.

Among all lightweight materials, aluminium leads in volume and revenue, while polymers are finding an increasing number of takers, mainly due to the low cost-to-performance ratio depending upon part size, shape and complexity. The adoption rate of plastics will be low in structural parts, which require robust impact resistance properties.

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