Today’s cars are lighter and more fuel efficient thanks to this material

Automakers are in a race against the clock and they know it. Current regulations require that by 2025, vehicles will need to achieve the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard of 54.4 miles per gallon, a dramatic climb from the 2016 standard of 35.5 mpg.

This deadline now falls within one decade, and automakers are employing multiple means to make their vehicles more fuel-efficient, such as improved drive trains and design. They’ve found one of the most effective ways to improve efficiency is through “lightweighting,” the process of replacing heavier components with lighter ones. This has led to incorporating more new, advanced materials into the manufacturing process for today’s cars and trucks.

Lighter weight equals lighter fuel costs

Automakers are finding that advanced plastics are effective materials for reducing component weight while maintaining and even improving safety. Due to their favorable strength to weight ratios, plastics now account for 50 percent of the volume of today’s vehicles but only about 10 percent of the weight. With weight reduction comes improved fuel efficiency — research shows that every 10 percent reduction in a vehicle’s weight improves fuel efficiency by 6 to 8 percent.

To improve even further on fuel efficiency and safety, automakers are turning to plastic composites such as lightweight yet strong carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, the material used in some modern jetliners. Made mostly of carbon atoms, ultra thin carbon fibers typically are bundled together to form thread that is woven into fabric. This fabric is combined with plastics to create an advanced composite matrix, something much tougher than the individual materials could be on their own.

The composite’s unique structure can make it up to 10 times stronger than steel, 50 percent lighter than steel, and 30 percent lighter than aluminum — great news for automakers looking to increase gas mileage and improve vehicle safety. As one automaker recently noted: “Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities — acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency — can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.”

In the past, carbon fiber-reinforced plastics composites were largely limited to the auto-racing or luxury car worlds because of cost. These composites are used today in a limited number of components such as rear spoilers, hoods, and roofs in some modern cars. And now they are beginning to show up in large quantities in production volume vehicles thanks to significant research and development by automakers, plastics makers, the federal government, and others.

Due to their light weight and strength, it’s expected that advanced plastics and composites such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastics will play an increasing role as automakers strive to make their cars leaner. To learn more about the role these materials play in automobile innovation, visit PlasticsMakeItPossible.com.


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