Though they come at a cost, electric vehicles present an appealing alternative for consumers to fuel-consuming vehicles. Being able to harness that appeal and present an electric vehicle that is lightweight yet sturdy, efficient and aesthetically pleasing is crucial in providing the driving experience that consumers expect. For automobile manufacturers, transitioning from using metals to nonmetallic composite materials provides opportunities to make the marginal gains that will lead to overall more efficient electric vehicles.
Resurgence of electric vehicle
The renewed interest in electric vehicles began 15 to 20 years ago. While the first electric vehicle was developed in the late 19th century, the access to cheap crude oil contributed to their decline. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when new federal and state regulations renewed interest in electric vehicles, that automakers began adapting their models into hybrid and electric vehicles with capabilities that aimed to match those of their gas-powered vehicles. The electric cars in production today make use of lightweighting materials, such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastic to achieve lightweighting, so they can run entirely on electricity and not be classified as hybrid.
Problem-solving through lightweighting
Lightweighting in the automobile industry can serve to solve many problems. Weight is a significant concern in the design of automobiles — it can affect speed, driver experience and range. The heavier the car is, the more power it takes to move down the road, and the more power it takes to move, the less fuel-efficient it will be. This is especially problematic for electric vehicles, as they are not as physically fuel-efficient as combustion engine vehicles. In order to make electric vehicles more functional and energy-efficient, they must have less mass, since the power delivered from a battery is not as efficient as the power one can deliver by burning a fuel.
As battery-powered vehicles are not as efficient and electric vehicle batteries can be heavy, automobile manufacturers need to take weight out of the remainder of the vehicle in order to increase battery lifespan and range. Historically, automobile manufacturers looking to include lightweighting in their manufacturing processes have looked to the battery — creating the most efficient battery per unit dollar or mass. The future of lightweighting will extend beyond the battery and look at areas in the frame of the body. It’s important to find a balance, however — while certain elements of the car’s frame are going to stay metallic, optimising the areas in which lightweight materials can be used will in turn help optimise electric vehicles’ performance.
Apart from lightweighting, an advantage of using non-metallic composite materials to achieve lightweighting goals is that they can still be moulded into aesthetically-pleasing shapes. It’s difficult to create an ideal shape using a traditional metallic material but still keep it lightweight — using composite materials allows vehicles to keep the aerodynamic aesthetic while still providing the weight reduction and range improvements desired.
Lightweighting and NVH performance
NVH performance often goes hand-in-hand with automobile lightweighting. Consumers expect NVH performance to be at its best — which means expecting the range and benefits of an electric vehicle without compromising the look, feel and sound of a traditional gas-powered vehicle. While the range is the main drawing factor for consumers, the conditions of driving the car have to present a comfortable environment or they won’t consider buying it.
Challenges of lightweighting
While there are benefits to lightweighting automobiles, this practice does not come without its challenges — materials are more expensive, the equipment to produce non-metallic parts is more expensive than stamping steel and the time it takes to produce parts out of the composite is greater than stamping steel. These are all major challenges, but automotive manufacturers are finding ways to work around those constraints, including outsourcing to niche manufacturers for each component and assembling as a whole on their own.
More efficient electric vehicles
With increasing the range of electric vehicles as the ultimate goal, using lightweight materials, such as non-metallic composite materials, can help reduce weight, which in turn increases the battery life while keeping the structural and aesthetic integrity automobile manufacturers and consumers look for. For automobile manufacturers, transitioning from using metals to non-metallic composite materials provides opportunities to make the marginal gains that will lead to overall more efficient electric vehicles.
Courtesy: Countervail Products, LLC