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Shifting legislative landscape could affect lightweighting, materials innovations

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 07:00
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In the U.S. and elsewhere, automakers have been transitioning to new lighter weight materials in order to reach increasingly stringent fuel efficiency standards. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. require vehicles to achieve a 54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025. While CAFÉ standards are a significant factor that contribute to lightweighting efforts, individual state requirements and global demands have made it increasingly complex to design vehicles for a range of markets. For example, Europe’s target reductions in CO2 emissions require a 40 percent decrease for fleets from 2007 to 2021, and have also driven adoption of new materials.

In response, automakers are re-designing vehicles to include a variety of new materials, including advanced high strength steels, aluminum, and composites.

“Automakers and OEMs are working more closely than ever with the composites industry to produce lighter, more efficient vehicles to meet the new requirements,” says Tom Dobbins, president of the American Composites Manufacturers Association. “According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) a 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight can improve fuel efficiency by 6 to 8 percent or increase the range of a battery-electric vehicle by up to 10 percent. Compared with steel, composites can offer a mass reduction ranging of 25 to 30 percent for glass fiber systems and 60 to 70 percent for carbon fiber systems.”

There have also been significant increases in the use of advanced high-strength steel and aluminum.

With the recent change in leadership in Washington, D.C., to a decidedly more anti-regulation regime in both the White House and Congress, the state of fuel efficiency standards and other environmental regulations that affect the auto industry are now in flux.

Exactly how the new administration’s policies might affect auto regulations is still uncertain. Presently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no chief. President Trump has begun rolling back the previous administration’s environmental efforts, and has vowed to re-evaluate Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards, but it remains unclear exactly what that means.

Even if the administration wants to roll back CAFE requirements, California, which has an outsize influence on these efforts has independent authority over emissions standards under the Clean Air Act. In addition, more than a dozen other states have adopted California’s standards, which until recently have outpaced federal guidelines.

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And automakers are already invested heavily in light-weighting and efficiency initiatives that would be difficult to back away from, even if the requirements are eased.

“My estimation is that things are going to continue as planned for most of these developments,” says Brian Daugherty, CTO of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA). “Under the Obama administration, fuel economy standards were changed significantly, so if you look at the scope of the curve we are entering for what is already a regulation, it’s pretty steep. There will still be a need for fuel economy technologies in the marketplace going forward. Even if there is a slowdown in regulation, that need will still be there.”

“The trend is to look for lighter, stronger materials,” says Bob Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association (ASA). “There are the European standards that manufacturers have to contend with, and what’s happening in California. With the technology being developed, the automakers are not going to pull back on that based on a change in one country’s standards.”

Environmental regs drive materials mix

Automakers lightweighting efforts have already significantly transformed the mix of materials used in modern automobiles. A Ducker Worldwide study forecasts that aluminum content in cars will increase by as much as 30 percent in the next ten years, reaching nearly 200 kg per vehicle.

The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) projects that by 2040, only 12 percent of the average vehicle will be mild- to high-strength steel. Another 42 percent will be advanced high-strength steel or ultra-high-strength and boron/martensite steel. Twenty-six percent of the car will be aluminum, 5 percent magnesium, and 15 percent will be carbon fiber/composites.

Composites also show a lot of promise. In 2015, composites represented roughly 1 percent of all materials used in light vehicle production by mass (at nearly 4 billion pounds). According to Dobbins, the composites industry is working diligently to capitalize on the opportunities presented by legislatively-driven lightweighting.

Dobbins says that the ACMA is educating engineers and executives at OEMs about the benefits of composites. BMW, for one, is basing a number of its models around composite structures, such as the i3, i8 and 7 Series. Other OEMs like Ford have even taken steps to use carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) in wheels to reduce weight in certain vehicles, such as the Shelby GT350R Mustang. Honda uses composites in the truck bed of its 2017 Ridgeline.

According to Industrial Market Insight, current forecasts predict annual growth rates of 6 to 9 percent for automotive composites over the next several years, primarily because of the ability of carbon fiber composites to help manufacturers meet increasing fuel economy and safety regulations. “However, these growth forecasts are predicated on the industry’s ability to successfully meet challenges related to cost, cycle time and end-of-life concerns, which will require breakthroughs in materials and process technologies,” Dobbins says.

Lightweighting to continue, regardless of emissions changes

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has encouraged the EPA to revisit emissions standards, noting that current standards force automakers to produce smaller, higher-mileage vehicles that American buyers simply aren’t interested in buying.

In a letter to EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the group asked for the agency to withdraw from the “final Determination” that current emissions targets remain in place. The Alliance also claims that standards will drive up vehicle costs and reduce sales. According to Alliance president and CEO Mitch Bainwol, the standards “threaten to depress an industry that can ill afford spiraling regulatory costs. If left unchanged, those standards could cause up to 1.1 million Americans to lose jobs due to lost vehicle sales.”

If the EPA conducts the mid-term review that automakers are calling for, it might not have much effect on the OEMs lightweighting efforts. In the U.S., any alteration of the CAFE requirements will likely help automakers adjust their fleet mix to reflect market demand for larger trucks and SUVs. Even in those segments, consumer demand for better fuel economy will encourage the use of lighter, stronger materials.

Most of the industry organizations contacted for this story don’t see emissions standards changing the general direction of technology development in the automotive sector. That is reflected in their lobbying priorities. According to Redding, the ASA is primarily focused on protecting the federal insurance office and monitoring proposed requirements for vehicle-to-vehicle and connected care technologies, as well as autonomous vehicle legislation.

“As for the CAFE standards, we don’t perceive anything happening in the short term,” Redding says. “They really need to complete the nomination and confirmation processes for some of these agency heads before there’s any movement. Those kinds of changes have to have somebody in place for those decisions to be made, and someone has to sign off on it.”

Redding adds that given other high-profile legislative priorities in Congress, and the current environment in Washington, D.C., there are unlikely to be any major regulatory changes that will impact automakers environmental programs.

“Until we have a NHTSA administrator and other agency heads in place, we won’t see a lot of movement on things they’ve been working on in the Department of Transportation,” Redding says. “I don’t see them releasing any dramatic new regulations until they have those senior people in place.”

The automakers also operate in a global marketplace, and will still have to invest R&D into fuel efficiency if they want to sell in Europe, Asia, and other regions.

“Over the long term, there is no real alternative to lightweighting to achieve the combination of performance, features, safety and fuel economy demanded by both regulations and consumers,” Dobbins says. “Lightweighting will stay near the top of the list of options to meet the complex mix of requirements in various regions around the world.”

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