There's a phrase oft-quoted in the automotive world when the topic of lighter cars is discussed.
The phrase, "add lightness", originated from Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars and builder of some of the best sports cars and racing vehicles ever made. And the influence has remained--Lotus still builds light cars, to the benefit of performance, handling, and of course--efficiency.
The company now believes that by cutting down on components and using special materials, the weight of a "body-in-white"--that's a bare car shell--can be cut by almost 40 percent with little increase in cost.
What's more, the California Air Resources Board is studying Lotus's research with a view to encouraging automakers to adopt the same techniques.
Using a Toyota Venza, Lotus Engineering was able to make a body-in-white 36 percent lighter, by replacing the standard steel frame with aluminum, magnesium, high strength steel and other composite materials.
Normally, that would increase costs significantly, but Lotus offset those costs by eliminating unnecessary components and making others do multiple jobs. Lotus Engineering managed to cut the number of parts in the body-in-white from 400, down to only 170.
According to Automotive News, CARB plans to use the results of this research to extol the benefits of reduced weight, encouraging other automakers to build lighter, more efficient vehicles.
Lotus Engineering's North American head Darren Somerset believes that a 10 percent reduction in weight overall increases fuel efficiency by 6 to 8 percent. Previous research by Lotus has shown that slashing weight by 38 percent would reduce fuel consumption by almost a quarter--and if you could sell 50,000 or more units, overall manufacturing costs would rise by only 3 percent.
Until now, lightweight and exotic materials have been the preserve of supercars--and the expense of cars like Honda's original aluminum Insight hybrid illustrated the difficulty of cutting weight cost-effectively.
With modern engineering methods however, that cost disadvantage can be minimized, and it may not be long before your average family sedan is lighter than it's been for generations.