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Weight watchers – Top 5 ultralight car technologies

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Supercars are all about power, and car companies will do anything to save weight to help improve the mystical power-to-weight ratio. 20 years ago, this meant stripping all the luxuries out of a sports car – such as air conditioning, interior furnishing – whatever wasn’t absolutely necessary. The result was cars that were incredible to drive, but without any of the comforts that even a budget car of the era had.

 

These days, car manufacturers have changed tact, and instead of stripping the cars out, have provided an interior with all the expected modcons – there is no compromise. This is all thanks to the boom in the use of innovative, weight saving materials such as carbon fibre, which can save plenty of weight, meaning that Ferrari’s and Dacia alike get to indulge a bit more luxury. The almost entirely customisable car interior of the Ferrari 458 is featured in Sam Chilcott’s blog post Car interiors that have the WOW factor, where she discusses how supercar interiors both save weight and exude style.

So we’ve all heard of carbon fibre, but the motoring industry has got a lot more up their sleeve. Time to take a look:

Carbon Fibre

Start with the big one – everybody has heard of carbon fibre, but what are its main advantages? It’s both stronger and lighter than steel (which is typically used for cars) making it a perfect material for cars.

Currently, most car manufacturers restrict use of carbon fibre bodywork for the highest spec sports models of their vehicle because it is more expensive to manufacture. Carbon fibre is not only used on the bodywork – F1 cars use a carbon fibre composite braking system to save weight and improve performance.

Autoexpress reported that BMW carbon fibre wheels are very close to production – which were developed during the BMW i3 and i8 project, proving that this technology is already filtering down into the average car.

Aluminium

Installing aluminium parts as opposed to steel parts in a car can reduce weight by 24%. It is not typically used for structural bodywork, but parts such as the exhaust pipes and hood can be safely replaced with aluminium parts for weight reduction.

There are clear signs that the auto industry plan to increase its use of aluminium, however this will require major investments by manufacturers in new machines – so is it worth the bother? The Wall Street Journal ran a story “Will All Aluminium Cars Drive The Metal Industry” highlighting that current state of play is that the only vehicles made entirely from aluminium have been luxury cars, like the Audi A8 and the Jaguar XJR.

The technology of producing the body of the Jaquar XKR model is worth giving attention to. What is unique about it is that it is the first industrial application in the automotive industry of an integral all-aluminium ‘monocoque’-type body. Having developed aviation technologies where light-weighting is the critical factor, Jaguar managed to introduce the light and durable body design, some parts of which can be fastened together both by clamps and epoxy adhesives, for batch production.

Magnesium

Magnesium currently isn’t widely used in vehicles because it is about seven times more expensive to make than steel. These higher production costs mean that this material will probably only be used in high end cars, where money is no issue. There is news that the industry is now realising the benefits of magnesium’s lightweighting uses, and it comes as no surprise as it is reported as being 75% lighter than steel and 33% lighter than aluminium.

GM Motors are very much on the ball, as in 2002 they took out a patent for magnesium sheeting, which they use to create auto parts such as steering wheels, instrument panels and rood panel frames.  GM Motors are not the only ones getting excited – the Wards Auto group reported late last year that magnesium could be one of the most promising materials for achieving weight reduction. They let us know that the US Automotive Materials Partnership comprising of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors believe that “By 2020, magnesium parts will contribute to a 15% weight reduction in cars and trucks, leading to fuel savings of 9% to 12%”. Magnesium parts are currently being developed on a small scale by GM motors, whereas their neighbours Ford and Chrysler are among the manufactures who are using magnesium car parts made by suppliers in their vehicles.

Magnesium is definitely one to watch, we will certainly be keeping a close eye on the developments over at GM Motors production crew too.

Gorilla Glass

It’s rare for the automotive industry to draw inspiration from the technological industry – but Cornings Gorilla Glass could be an exception. Currently used for smartphone screens, where weight can be just as important as in cars, Gorilla Glass is a lightweight alternative to standard glass, and its scratch resistant properties will only benefit it further. It is currently used by the plug-in-hybird BMW i8 for its windows. BMW said that this was for sound-dampening purposes, as the glass will consist of two 0.7mm layers with an acoustic sheet in the middle. They also highlighted that it would make the vehicle a lot lighter in weight. With the clear benefits of having Gorilla Glass fitted in your car windows: reduced petrol costs and reduced road noise, then this is one to watch.

Kevlar

Used to make bullet proof vests and in the manufacture of high-speed boats, aircraft and wind turbines, Kevlar is a tough, durable material. Kevlar is exclusively owned and produced by Dupont and is classed as being over Eight times stronger than a steel wire. Despite its super strength it is also very lightweight, and the plastics made from the fibres can be used in car interiors. Kit car enthusiasts can buy seats made from Kevlar, which weigh only 2.7kg – that’s a seriously low figure.

Conclusion

Of these materials, some are now in constant use, whereas others have yet to break into the market. Regardless of this, the reduction in weight is good news for both drive quality and the environment by increasing fuel efficiency and reducing the amount of harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

With reports that the UK is currently the most expensive country in the EU in terms of running a car, with rising fuel costs being a huge factor, we are keen to hear more about developments in car materials and technologies to reduce the running costs for the motorist.  If fuel efficiency is important to you, be sure to make yourself aware of the Fair Fuel UK campaign and visit our blog on our top ten most fuel efficient cars.

Should you have any comments to share, add them below or get in touch with me over at my social channels.

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