Remember the old ad slogan, "Where's the beef?" The question
of tomorrow in a more health-conscious environment might well
be, "How much fat can you cut?"
Automakers will continue to tinker with different materials
to slim down vehicle weight in an attempt to boost fuel
economy, some analysts said.
"Weight is one of the biggest areas to be addressed.
Everybody's vehicles need to go on a diet," said Jeffrey
Jowett, manager of North American powertrain forecasts at CSM
Worldwide Inc., Northville, Mich. That's especially true in the
face of stricter fuel economy standards and consumers concerned
about fuel economy.
That means more aluminum engine blocks and cylinder heads
and even more magnesium cam covers. While composites remain
expensive, automakers likely will use more of them-especially
in body panels as suppliers get up to speed and volumes
increase, bringing costs down, he said.
But in some respects, the more things change the more they
stay the same. "You are going to have more electric
powertrains, which means additional motors and batteries,"
Jowett said. "But I don't see the internal combustion engine
going away for a while."
Automakers are doing anything and everything to get an extra
half mile per gallon, according to Richard A. Schultz, project
consultant at Ducker Worldwide LLC, Troy, Mich. "If you would
have told the industry they had to do this a few years ago,
they would have said, 'Oh, we can't.' But the consumer has
Switching from the body-on-frame design of a traditional
truck or sport utility vehicle (SUV) to the unibody design of a
car or crossover vehicle can shed as much as 800 pounds,
lowering fleet curb weight by as much as 300 pounds, he
And the "watershed" moment likely will also see at least 95
percent of engine cylinder heads and 65 percent of engine
blocks made from aluminum within the next year, he said. But
it's not all roses for aluminum. Engine exhaust intake
manifolds, 35 to 40 percent of which are made from aluminum
currently, could see inroads from magnesium and plastics. But
most are moving toward reinforced nylon, and alternative
materials could make gains on engine covers as well. "All this
is being worked on, and it's hot on everyone's plate because of
fuel prices," Schultz said.
Like others in the industry, he said there has been an
interest in a more-magnesium-intensive engine. But with the
price of magnesium where it is, "it's not ready for prime
time," he said. "(But) down the road, I think it will be a way
to lightweight the internal combustion engine."
That's especially true because automakers need to offset
weight elsewhere in hybrids to account for the increased weight
of batteries. The battery on GM's first electric car weighed a
whopping 900 pounds, he said, and even the Toyota Prius is not
a lightweight car.
"The powertrain weighs more in the Prius than it would if it
were just a conventional engine because the battery weighs so
much, so you have to take weight out of the rest of the
vehicle," Schultz said.
In the Prius, that means a small aluminum engine, an
aluminum hood and an aluminum deck lid. The hybrid versions of
the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs also use aluminum hoods,
tailgates and other parts to make up for the increased weight
of the battery, he said.
But Schultz doesn't think the demise of the internal
combustion engine is at hand. By 2014, only about 900,000 of
the roughly 16 million vehicles produced in North America will
be hybrids, he said. In the meantime, automakers will push to
optimize the internal combustion engine with turbo charging,
friction reduction, cylinder deactivation and other methods
largely unrelated to material composition.
"They are going to keep perfecting the internal combustion
engine because the majority of the vehicles in my lifetime are
going to be internal combustion, either diesel or gasoline-not
electric," Schultz said.
Kim Korth, president of IRN Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.,
agreed that for the short term, anyway, the combustion engine
will still rule the road. "I really don't think we'll be off
the combustion engine any time soon. What we're seeing is more
conversions to a combination of power sources. But I believe
we'll see some breakthroughs on how automobiles will be
propelled over the next four or five years. It's a fast-moving
Brian Dunn, Montreal, contributed to this