Car-makers want innovative and cost-effective ways to build lighter vehicles without sacrificing comfort or safety. Customers want more features and better-quality cars without paying more. Governments want a low-carbon economy and green transport that meets safety and emission standards. It is a lot to ask, but lightweight cars soon available thanks to EU funding will keep everyone happy.
European researchers have developed a new approach for building cars which shaves 35-40% off their body weight. Lighter cars mean less fuel consumption, and less CO2 emissions. This is good news for the environment but also for drivers currently paying more and more to fill up their vehicles.
The Super Light Car (SLC) project achieved this breakthrough by replacing heavy steel parts with lighter materials, such as aluminium and carbon fibre-reinforced plastics, and by developing new ways to join these materials – a major hurdle for engineers until now.
The EU-funded team also developed safeguards to make sure the cars still meet requirements for stiffness, crash performance, material fatigue and corrosion resistance. Simulations show that the project's results do meet these requirements.
According to Dr Martin Goede of Volkswagen AG, the focus was on innovative material design, manufacturing and new assembly methods. The best material and manufacturing processes were investigated to get the weight and costs down as much as possible. 'In addition to the development of metals and light metals, the research on fibre-reinforced plastics will play a major role,' he says.
Dr Goede coordinated a huge consortium of European partners from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. Partners included VW, Fiat, Opel, Renault, Volvo, Porsche and Daimler, together with specialists and suppliers such as ArcelorMittal and Norsk Hydro.
Research on this scale is virtually impossible for any one manufacturer or country, suggests the coordinator. It calls for shared know-how and collective investment in the outcome, which is where EU support for large integrated teams becomes critical. Rather than having many unprofitable smaller projects, developers now know exactly how much car body weight can be trimmed while still conforming to standards. This is an important step towards market roll-out.
Demands for more comfort and safety in modern cars, from air-conditioning to advanced assisted-driving technology, are offsetting the gains from new fuel-efficient engine technology.
Every additional kilo pushes fuel consumption up. For example, a standard C-class car has gained 40% in weight compared to the 1970s. A typical Volkswagen Golf now weighs 1 617kg, up from 970kg when it first appeared on the market. Meanwhile, traditional fossil fuels are getting scarcer and thus more costly. And the transport sector is under pressure to lower its carbon footprint and cut pollution. Transport is currently responsible for around a quarter of CO2 emissions in Europe. Consuming less fuel and energy will help the EU implement its Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
Early signs are good. Makers of smaller-volume series cars have successfully trimmed the body weight on some vehicle lines, although this hand-built approach has proved too expensive and impractical for the major players. So the project went one step further to make the SLC approach workable for big-volume production. In fact, its C-class prototype can be scaled up and made commercially viable within a few years. Simulations have demonstrated a manufacturing capability of 1 000 cars a day.
The prototype meets everyone's demands and once on the market could save many tonnes of fuel and help the EU to achieve its goal of becoming a low-carbon economy. With SLC, car-makers can finally lighten up.