Aluminum, steel, engineering plastics, advanced composites and magnesium need to co-exist to meet emissions and fuel economy standards.  The real question is where and how soon can we get the advanced designs into production, affordably.

“Crisis” may be a bit of an overstatement, but revolution certainly fits as we strive to meet 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) CAFE mandates and the possibility of even more aggressive fuel-economy and emissions standards down the road.

DuPont recently sponsored a survey that posed this question to WardsAuto readers: “As Europe delays implementation of emission standards, and as the U.S. has a midterm review built into the CAFE program, will the standards relax, stay the same or increase?”

Nearly half said they see regulations strengthening. Respondents also said lightweighting is core to meeting the new standards and is gaining in value. Further, when asked which systems are the most likely targets, all ranked relatively equally.

While respondents to a similar survey last year gave aluminum a slight edge over plastics and composites as the material that can best help automakers meet regulations, engineers answering this year’s survey say they are looking at all materials in the portfolio.

So what do we take away?  Every system, every component throughout the vehicle is a candidate for weight savings. 

We know that a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%-8% increase in fuel economy. So let’s advance the conversation and instead of asking which material to use, let’s question how we get to the goal of 54.5 mpg faster.

There are likely as many opinions as there are people reading this, but I will offer some thoughts and encourage folks to write in their thoughts as well.

First and foremost I believe we need to break the rules – not the laws of physics – but the rules of conventional wisdom. By stepping outside the boundaries with creative thinking, many concepts and designs of advanced materials and composites will emerge that will take weight reduction to new levels. Vehicle components and systems can be designed with a fresh sheet of paper, inviting new, lighter-weight, integrated components and systems. Simply substituting one material for another in a component that is fundamentally the same shape and functionality limits the chance to achieve true gains.

Second, which is really a corollary, we need good data. This applies to having standard, real-world material performance data, as well as definition of constitutive behavior of the materials, including hybrid material combinations.

It’s less about the material with the ultimate strength or stiffness, but more about giving engineers the confidence and data to utilize today’s advanced computational tools to optimize both the mass and performance of the total system.

This will require folks who work in specialized areas to reach outside their comfort zones and take advantage of non-traditional materials that respond in ways that offer new possibilities in design.

True, these two thoughts offer unknown challenges and invite unlikely alliances, but at the end of the day, as we face the challenge of what likely will be even stricter emissions and fuel economy regulations, we can’t afford to do things the way we always have.

Mike Day is DuPont Automotive North American development director.