Last week, the New England Motoring Press Association and MIT held their seventh annual technology conference. This year’s event was entitled “Stronger, Faster, Lighter” and featured Charlie Klein from General Motors, Dr. Jody Hall of the Steel Market Development Institute, and David Paratore, CEO of NanoSteel.
Lightweighting Is A Virtuous Cycle
Klein was the keynote speaker. He is GM’s executive director of global CO2 strategy, mass, and aerodynamics. His job is figuring out how to make automobiles and other vehicles as efficient as possible. He began by paying tribute to Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars, who famously said, “Simplify, then add lightness. Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
With government regulators everywhere ramping up fuel economy and emissions standards, lightweighting — the process of making cars lighter — has become a vital part of planning for the future. Klein and his crew focus on how to make the cars of today and tomorrow lighter and stronger. Strength is critical because crash protection standards are also becoming more rigorous, especially since the partial offset frontal collision test was added to crash testing protocols.
Klein calls lightweighting a “virtuous cycle.” Cars with lighter chassis can use smaller, lighter components such as engines, transmissions, brakes, and suspension pieces. Much of the work today is done by computational analysis tools. He pointed specifically to the new Cadillac top of the line sedan, the CT6, which he says benefited from more than 50 million hours of computer time.
One of the results of that effort was a new component that connects the chassis behind the front wheels to the A pillar supports. In the CT6, it has 2 pieces. In prior Cadillac models, it took 23 separate pieces to do the same job. The new piece is not only lighter, it is stronger than the original design and is instrumental in allowing the CT6 to pass the partial offset crash test with flying colors.
Klein concluded his presentation by emphasizing why lightweighting will be especially important in designing electric cars. The lighter the weight, the smaller the battery can be. Batteries are the heaviest part of all electric cars. Making the chassis a little lighter can lead to significant reductions in battery weight.
Specialty Alloys And High Tech Bonding
Dr. Jody Hall then told the group about the assortment of special alloys and new bonding techniques being employed to join diverse metals and composites together. Much as BMW has pioneered the use of carbon fiber in the chassis of its i3 electric sedan, other manufacturers are blending high strength steels with aluminum, magnesium, and composites in a quest for stronger, lighter cars.
In the 1960’s, she said, there were 7 grades of steel available to car makers. Today, there are over 200, with that number continuing to grow. The new materials have different characteristics when it comes to formability, ductile strength, tensile strength, and many other parameters manufactures need to subtract weight from their cars.
As proof of how far car design has come, Hall showed this absolutely horrifying video (below) of a crash test conduct by Consumer Reports between a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. It is unlike anyone would have walked away from the Bel Air afterwards.
NanoSteel Makes Designer Steel
NanoSteel in Providence, Rhode Island is a steel company that makes no steel. Instead, it figures out how to make the new steel products that people like Hall and Klein need for their lightweighting programs. Perhaps it is more accurate to call the people at NanoSteel metallurgists. Companies give them the specifications for how they need a certain steel part to perform and NanoSteel does the research to determine how to meet those requirements.
Auto manufacturing is entering a new era where never before used materials like composites, carbon fiber, and magnesium are being incorporated into cars to make them both lighter and stronger. High strength industrial adhesives and new ways to weld steel to aluminum are only two of the advances currently under way. Companies like NanoSteel help design the steel to make the components manufacturers need at reasonable cost.
It is all part of a “virtuous cycle” intended to make the cars of today and tomorrow lighter, stronger, and faster so they can meet strict emissions, fuel economy, and safety standards while still appealing strongly to consumers.