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Nation/World

June 10, 2014

Auto industry gets serious about lighter materials

DEARBORN, Mich. — Roofs made of carbon fiber. Plastic windshields. Bumpers fashioned out of aluminum foam.

What sounds like a science experiment could be your next car.

While hybrids and electrics may grab the headlines, the real frontier in fuel economy is the switch to lighter materials.

Automakers have been experimenting for decades with lightweighting, as the practice is known, but the effort is gaining urgency with the adoption of tougher gas mileage standards. To meet the government’s goal of nearly doubling average fuel economy to 45 mpg by 2025, cars need to lose some serious pounds.

Lighter doesn’t mean less safe. Cars with new materials are already acing government crash tests. Around 30 percent of new vehicles already have hoods made of aluminum, which can absorb the same amount of impact as steel. Some car companies are teaming up with airplane makers, which have years of crash simulation data for lightweight materials.

Ford gave a glimpse of the future last week with a lightweight Fusion car. The prototype, developed with the U.S. Department of Energy, is about 800 pounds lighter than a typical Fusion, thanks to dozens of changes in parts and materials.

The instrument panel consists of a carbon fiber and nylon composite instead of steel. The rear window is made from the same tough but thin plastic that covers your cellphone.

The car has aluminum brake rotors that are 39 percent lighter than cast iron ones and carbon fiber wheels that weigh 42 percent less than aluminum ones.

Because it’s lighter, the prototype can use the same small engine as Ford’s subcompact Fiesta, which gets an estimated 45 mpg on the highway.

The car won’t be in dealerships anytime soon. For one thing, it’s prohibitively expensive. Its seats, for example, cost up to $73 apiece because they have carbon fiber frames. The same seats with steel frames are $12.

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