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How race cars are inspiring efficiency in new cars

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Auto racing is one big irony. Cars quickly burn through excessive amounts of fuel as they whiz around the track. But at the same time, fuel efficiency is one of the most crucial strategies in the sport.

Now, U.S. car companies are taking note of those fuel saving strategies as the U.S. government is requiring automakers to build fleets that average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Wall Street Journal reports from the Detroit Auto Show:

For the past century, autos were made largely of steel. But pressed to produce cars and trucks that go farther on a gallon of gas, manufacturers gathering here this week for the Motor City's annual auto show are cutting weight by substituting more plastics, aluminum and magnesium, including materials once found only in high-end race cars.

Only a handful of parts fashioned from new, lightweight materials are in current models—for example, the magnesium tailgate of the Explorer, the sport utility vehicle from Ford Motor Co. But in four to six years, car companies will roll out vehicles completely redesigned to use a wide mix of specialized materials.

It's estimated that North American automakers will increase their average use of aluminum to 550 pounds (from 327 in 2009) and decrease their average weight by 400 pounds by the 2025 fuel standard deadline.

It seems like an obvious move by automakers, so what's taken so long? These fuel reduction strategies have been used for years in race cars. The main reason? Cost. Aluminum is more expensive than steel and magnesium is more expensive than both. The other reason for this shift is more demand for fuel efficient vehicles as gas hit $4 a gallon. But it's not a change that should be taken for granted:

The shift to lighter vehicles marks a significant industry change. Until 2010, car companies were waging a motor arms race, offering ever brawnier engines of 400 horsepower and more. Sating customer appetite for more power made fuel-economy gains difficult. Bigger engines require bigger engine mounts, heavier brakes, stiffer suspensions—adding weight and boosting fuel consumption.

Not long ago, many auto executives said little could be done to improve fuel-economy without adding massive costs. Then gas prices soared to $4 a gallon and consumers demanded more fuel-efficient cars.

That's all changing, as Ford's Matthew Zaluzec told WSJ"Today, we look at lightweighting anywhere we can."

Detroit Sheds Pounds for Gas-Mileage Gains [Wall Street Journal]

Photo: Flickr/brett gullborg

— By on January 13, 2013, 10:42 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure