However, there are other ways to reduce running costs. Reducing vehicle weight is one very important factor. Traditionally, the automotive industry has reduced weight primarily only by downsizing, a strategy that has succeeded in cutting the weight of a typical car from 1700 kg to 1300 kg over the past 20 years.
Simple physics will tell you that a car with a lighter body can use a lighter engine, less massive suspension, and a less elaborate structure. These secondary weight savings can roughly double the benefits: for every 5 kg saved by reducing the weight of the body, another 5 kg can be saved by downsizing other parts of the car.
That was also the principle Colin Chapman instilled into Lotus. However, most auto engineering design centers of a few years ago, felt that to produce lightweight cars would require expensive lightweight materials. Whilst this might be fine for low volume production (like Lotus), it was not a practical goal for the mass market. It was easier to build more powerful engines than it was to reduce weight. But that was before the world became the victim of escalating petro-mania.
In 1993, energy technologist Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute suggested that major automakers could use existing materials and technologies to produce an ultra-lightweight, highly fuel-efficient vehicle. The ‘supercar’ he envisioned would incorporate lightweight plastics, computerized controls, and a hybrid powerplant. It would weigh roughly 500 kg and achieve well over 150 miles per gallon. Lovins felt it would, however, need a revolution in the industry to change the engineering concepts of ‘power’, rather than ‘weight’.
But as lightweight materials have become cheaper to manufacture and use, their adoption in production cars has become more widespread. Magnesium and aluminium alloys created car parts that were cost-competitive with conventional components. An example is that BMW with their Vision ED concept uses a magnesium block and they took 10 kg off the weight of the engine.
BMW are not alone in the weight loss department. Bentley have produced the new Supersports, which boasts a zero to 100 km/h time of 3.9 seconds, despite its weight of 2240 kg. However this all-up weight is over 110 kg lighter than the base model Bentley (if there ever is such a thing as a “base model” Bentley)!
The Bentley exercise shed weight by firstly tossing out the rear seats (26 kg saved), then another 45 kg was saved by replacing the sumptuous leather front seats with new carbon fiber bucket seats (sourced from the Bugatti Veyron). Carbon fiber disc brakes saved another 39 kg.
The Supersports features the same twin turbo 6.0 liter W12 (ex-VW) engine to other Continental models, and covers zero to 100 kph in 3.9 seconds.
Amory Lovins’ concept was made public 17 years ago, but the technology direction he proposed has now been shown to be on the right track (and that’s not racing track, but the everyday highways). Hybrids are definitely here, and Toyota and Honda are expanding this technology throughout the range of their vehicles (take a look at the tail end of the next Camry you see - it just might say “Hybrid”.)
Fuel economy is becoming increasingly important in a world that is afraid of crude oil shortages and increasing prices as the world’s economic crisis hopefully passes. For example, BMW’s Vision ED will return 3.8 liters per 100 km. The production BlueZero vehicles from Mercedes-Benz are also under 5 liters per 100 km, as are VW’s Blue Motion range.
The winds of change are upon us. Stylists are less important. Engineers are more important, and technology will reign supreme.