Lightweighting, a concept in the automotive industry, demands that all car parts be optimized for their lightest possible weight. By proposing that new materials be engineered to replace heavy car parts that cause engine strain, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are investing in functional, modern day solutions that better serve individual users and the environment.
Recent events have renewed interest and focus on lightweighting. For starters, President Biden issued Executive Order 13990 within the first month of his presidency. This order, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” directs federal agencies to review regulations and other agency actions from the Trump Administration, including the federal standards that regulate fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from passenger cars and trucks.
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These standards include the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Light-Duty Vehicle GHG Emission Standards put into effect by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
More recently, President Biden convened with chipmakers and automakers to discuss semiconductor supply chain shortages. Semiconductors are at the center of innovation within the automotive industry. They improve vehicle efficiency while also advancing safety technology like collision detection systems. Investing in the technology, research, and sourcing for semiconductors could help streamline industry wide lightweighting practices by replacing the need for heavy components with lightweight microchips and electrification.
The President also met with global leaders, reaffirming US commitment toward carbon neutrality by 2050, and to halve emissions by 2030. His plan, available in more detail on Whitehouse.gov, highlights the role of, “autoworkers building modern, efficient, electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure to support them.” With government support for innovation within the auto industry, lightweighting takes center stage.
OEMs have pursued two specific approaches to emissions reduction and automotive lightweighting:
Adopt hybrid power technologies and alternative power sources in the development of electric vehicles (EV)
Increase the distance travelled per gallon of fuel
These approaches aim to improve the range per charge of electric-powered vehicles and to reduce emissions from petrol and diesel powered vehicles. Reducing overall vehicle weight unlocks the commercial viability of both approaches.
A Materials Evolution – Trends in Automotive Lightweighting
Automotive manufacturers constantly seek out new quality materials. They do this to make improvements for overall vehicle safety, or to reduce noise, vibration, and fuel consumption. These incentives for innovation within the industry are intensified by strict environmental regulations, which are an essential component in reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally. Automotive lightweighting appears to be the best path forward.
Pushing forward a material’s science evolution at the benefit of better mileage, acceleration, braking, and overall vehicle handling, OEMs have developed advanced biocomposites and biomaterials, like fiber-reinforced alternatives, premium aluminum alloys, and advanced and ultra-high strength steels towards the goal of lightweighting vehicles in order to meet regulations.
Lightweighting practices are systems-oriented. It’s deceptive to think about it as a process of replacing individual components for their lighter versions.
Rather, the products and processes that OEMs focus on today consider all the lightweighting possibilities for reducing and eliminating components altogether. Utilizing new tools, like AI and 3D metal printers, helps facilitate experimentation and support the materials testing that successful automotive lightweighting requires.
Brakes International based out of Eindhoven, Netherlands, is developing brake-by-wire Smart Brake technology, which will launch in 2025. Smart Brake eliminates hydraulic braking, and replaces the master cylinder, brake lines, brake fluid, fluid-driven caliper pistons and anti-lock braking components.
By focusing on the entire braking system, rather than individual braking components, a lightweighting solution could be implemented as braking occurs electronically with electric motors. These electric motors demonstrate high clamping force on brake pads and rotors.
Smaller fuel tanks that offer better fuel efficiency are lighter than their bulkier counterparts. And, battery powered vehicles eliminate the need for fuel tanks entirely.
Having fewer overall parts reduces the amount of mechanical fixings and adhesives in things like vehicle consoles. These smaller seemingly less heavy components accumulate in bulk.
Coats and finishes
Thinner primer and topcoats decrease material usage.
Noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) dampening
Insulation materials (heat, noise, and/or vibration reduction) for underneath hoods, wheel arches, passenger compartments, and engine encapsulation are shifting to lighter materials like aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber reinforced composites.
Jointing and component composition
Plastics, polycarbonate, carbon fibers, aluminum, ultra-high and advanced strength steel types and the use of adhesives and spot welds instead of traditional mechanical fixings result in weight reduction. Adhesives permit jointing of different materials, which can be beneficial for hybrid constructions.
What Is Used Where?
Automotive lightweighting applications can vary depending on vehicle type. For example, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) shows that structural differences between unibody and body-on-frame vehicles play a major role in material component choices. Body-on-frame vehicles—mostly trucks and SUVs wherein the body sits on top of a strong, flat frame, that supports and holds the wheels and suspension— are also, in general, more expensive than unibody vehicles—cars whose body serves as the frame that supports the weight of the vehicle as well as the wheels and suspension.
Some of the main opportunities for automotive lightweighting are in: interiors, insulation, bumpers, seating, windows, body panels, structure, and battery packs.
Controlled heat treatments and controlled chemical procedures produce Advanced High Strength Steels (AHSS) and Ultra High Strength Steels (UHSS) with up to 1700 MPa tensile strength. There are several types of steel that fall under the AHSS/UHSS category, including dual-phase steel, and martensitic steel. Integrating these complex and sophisticated steels in automotive applications leads to weight and cost reduction.
Dual Phase (DP) steels are available in different strength grades and have become a critical fixture in the automotive industry. They provide tensile strength and ductile properties, as well as good formability and dent resistance.
DP590 – auto floor paneling, outer hood, body sides, cowls, structural reinforcements, and fenders
DP790 – auto body structures that require high energy absorption, like front and rear railing and reinforcement structure
DP980 – “body-in-white” (BIW) applications
DP1180 – prevent intrusion into passenger compartments
DP1270 – passenger safety cage components, like rockers, pillars, pillar reinforcements, roof rails, and cross members
Martensite steel grades, especially multiphase steel (MS) boast some of the highest tensile strength levels within the AHSS/UHSS group. MS steel grades were specifically engineered for the automotive industry. You’ll see martensitic steel used for cross members, bumper reinforcement, and side intrusion beams. Kloeckner Metals supplies: MS1300, MS1500, and MS1700.
Lightweighting the F150: A Case Study
Ford was one of the earliest adopters of automotive lightweighting. They also just set new emissions reduction targets to achieve by 2035 in its 2021 Sustainability Report, with the goal to reach a 76% reduction in scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions from operations (based on 2017 emissions), and a 50% reduction in scope 3 GHG emissions from its vehicles (based on 2019 emissions).
The shift to an aluminum body in their signature F150 was aimed to make it a lighter vehicle. That change required other changes to be made. While Ford adopted innovative aluminum lightweighting, paints, adhesives, welding process all had to be adapted to the new material. Entire product lifecycles had to be reworked including things like waste streams and recycling demand.
Cost is one reason why AHSS and UHSS have been utilized over aluminum. Switching to aluminum bodies like the Ford trucks requires new body shops, whereas new steels can be used at existing facilities, with some slight adjustments to reduce the higher likelihood for machine wear.
Support for OEMs & Next Steps
The broader supply chain challenges that Ford and other OEMs face as they commit to lightweighting, signal more need for government support, especially as the industry is held to ambitious CAFE standards. One example demonstrating the US commitment to automotive lightweighting principles is Obama-Era LIFT, a nonprofit public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense, industry and academia, working to innovate mobility manufacturing and make lightweighting practices more accessible.
It’s exciting to consider the future of lightweighting applications in the auto industry and what more there is still to come. Kloeckner Metals takes pride in our extensive inventories of lightweight aluminum alloys and advanced and ultra high strength steels that are at the forefront of transformation during such an historical moment.
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Sara Montijo is a writer for Kloeckner Metals. She graduated with honors from NYU and has previously facilitated multimedia programming and worked alongside renowned chefs. Her friends call her a time warp.