college-professors-really-smartSometimes I stumble across a piece of automotive “insight” that’s beyond absurd. Today, I found that insight on

According to Professor Gordon Murray (who really knows what he’s talking about because he’s worked on Formula race cars, the most absurdly expensive racing vehicles ever built), improving vehicle fuel economy is simply a matter of weight loss.

“If you could take 10% off the weight of every car on the planet overnight, it would make so much more difference than all the new engine technologies and fuel technologies that people are talking about,” he says.

Ya, no shit professor.

Reducing vehicle weight is a top priority for every automaker, but it’s not cheap or easy:

  • Crash safety rules require material that is strong yet energy absorbing during an impact. Most automotive engineers call this material “steel,” and steel is heavy.
  • Consumers and car critics alike expect vehicles that ride comfortably while handling like race cars. That means you design a vehicle with a rigid and strong frame, and you do that with steel.
  • Everyone also wants their vehicles to be quiet, which means you use lots of heavy sound deadening and sound absorbing materials including – yep, you guessed it – steel.
  • Consumers want their cars to be affordable, and guess what material offers the best strength to cost ratio on the planet? Steel!

But What About Aluminum? Composites? Magnesium?

Sure sure – automakers are searching high and low for alternatives to steel. Honda is making car doors out of aluminum and steel, and it’s cutting edge stuff. The all-aluminum frame on the new Corvette is incredible, a true feat of automotive engineering when you consider how affordable it is. Ford is toying with using a magnesium alloy for truck frames, and all sorts of automakers are looking at composite materials.

2014 Corvette Aluminum Frame
The 2014 Corvette’s all aluminum frame is substantially more expensive than most vehicle frames, yet only 99lbs lighter than the steel and aluminum frame it replaces.

Still, when you look at how much these new materials cost (a lot) and how much weight they save (not much), it’s obvious why automakers are working on hybrid engines, advanced ICE technologies like HCCI, stratified direct injection, 9 and 10 speed transmissions, etc. It’s more cost effective to improve the efficiency of the power plant than it is to use exotic materials to reduce vehicle weight by 67 lbs.

I’t’s not about technology, it’s about money. It’s ALWAYS about money.

Professor Amazing Murray says that automakers don’t really want to build lightweight vehicles because “carmakers want to go upmarket and sell bigger, more luxurious cars and make more profit,” but that’s a half truth at best. Consumers like bigger, more luxurious cars, and profit isn’t a four letter word.

Bottom Line

Weight loss is well underway in the auto industry, and we’ll see more manufacturers focus on reducing vehicle weight. However, anyone who thinks that automakers are making “excuses” and refusing to focus on weight reduction is flaming idiot. Weight loss is expensive.

Powertrain enhancements offer a better ROI…which is why every automaker is working on that first.

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