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How to Lighten Up

Light-weighting is beyond a doubt the hottest industry topic today—unlikely to change over the next decade.

Light-weighting is beyond a doubt the hottest industry topic today—unlikely to change over the next decade. The joint EPA/NHTSA regulations set through 2025 combined with Euro 6 mandates and similar legislation in other regions (China, Japan, Brazil, Canada) have placed us on a vehicle mass reduction glide path never witnessed before. The level of attention and resources focused on taking weight out of every facet of the vehicle will rival the lumpy shift to front-wheel drive/unibody structures in the early ‘80s.

Most agree that the auto industry has made gains via engine downsizing, charging technology, multi-speed transmissions, variable valve and stop/start installations. The “less is more” philosophy evident over the past five years was in some respects the easy route compared to what lies ahead. The proverbial heavy lifting to improve fuel economy/lower emissions will need to emanate from extensive mass reduction efforts—all the while ensuring the safety capabilities are maintained and the constant shift toward global platforms continues.

Mass reduction levels through 2025 range from 700 to 1,000 pounds to meet the new mandates. Word on the street is that even with the 2018 legislative review in Washington, the regulations will not go backwards—although the acceleration rate of the new regulations may slow or a new round of “credits” will allows OEMs to defray some weight saving. Essentially, there are between 1.5 and 2 vehicle cycles to meet the new regulations—it gets closer every day.

Similar to the jockeying which occurred with engine technology integration, downsizing and micro/mild hybridization, each OEM is taking a different route to the same destination of 54.4 mpg so far as mass is concerned. The new “footprint” calculation to fuel economy improvement raises the ante for many—lowering it for others. In general, mass reduction will be focused on larger vehicles requiring more substantive reduction. Case in point is Ford’s upcoming F-Series replacement—dubbed P552. Integration of aluminum body panels as well as selective use in the chassis in concert with better vehicle optimization will yield a quantum leap others will have to follow—eventually. Planners at their competitors have certainly taken notice.

The obvious material substitutions of mild steels to high-strength or advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) or even different forms of aluminum are common fare today though the technology, risk and cost tradeoffs are far from trivial. Costs to shift to AHSS or aluminum are high though necessary to reduce mass in body/structure and chassis/suspension areas—where the low hanging fruit is. Suppliers are weary of the risk to shift to expensive stamping processes if the solution is short-lived and graduates to another form. The “rock/hard place” quandary is impacting the desire for suppliers of all stripes to add capital/technology risk to their portfolio. Essentially, each OEM will have its own material tradeoff calculation which impacts material use, vehicle design, bonding, downstream recycling and production cost.

OEMs will be contestants in this decade-long “Biggest Loser” reality series. How each approaches the contest, aligns with suppliers, and focuses on the optimal solutions for their structure will determine profitability and possibly, survival. Global scale, a well-planned design/manufacturing and supplier strategy and the ability to fall back on Plan B will be critical. One hopes that the shift toward lighter vehicles will be more graceful than our industry’s shift to front-wheel drive/unibody structures 30 years ago. The memory is still, unfortunately, quite vivid. 

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Michael Robinet has been a managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting since 2011. Prior to that, he was the director of Global Production Forecasts for IHS Automotive. His areas of expertise include global vehicle production and capacity forecasting, future product program intelligence, platform consolidation and globalization trends, trade flow/sourcing strategies, and OEM footprint/logistics trends.

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