Automakers are increasingly adopting mixed-materials strategies to reduce vehicle weight. Meanwhile, the car of the future is emerging as a smart, connected, electrified vehicle that redefines how vehicles are created—by employing a user-driven, multi-disciplinary approach to product design and manufacturing.
By Mark Shortt
It’s not unusual today to hear an automotive executive refer to their company as a technology company or mobility company. Pressures to meet unyielding fuel efficiency requirements and to deliver uncompromising customer experiences are driving the development of a host of advanced technologies for automakers. And as they embrace them with open arms, companies from the likes of Ford and General Motors to Tesla and Faraday Future are redefining what it means to be an automotive manufacturer today.
A New Model for Product Design and Development
Tesla CEO Elon Musk wasn’t kidding last year when, as reported by Jerry Hirsch in a March 19, 2015 piece in the Los Angeles Times, he referred to the Model S electric sedan as “a sophisticated computer on wheels” for its ability to receive software updates for safety features like automatic braking and a partial autopilot system. “Tesla is a software company as much it is a hardware company,” Musk was quoted as saying. “A huge part of what Tesla is, is a Silicon Valley software company. We view this the same as updating your phone or your laptop.”
Faraday Future, a Gardena, Calif.-based startup with plans to build a $1 billion, 3 million-square-foot electric car manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas, Nevada, has assembled a team of more than 700 multi-disciplinary experts from the technology, automotive, aerospace, and digital content fields. The company says that it is taking “a user-centric, technology-first approach to vehicle design,” aiming to connect its customers’ automotive experience to the rest of their lives. At CES in Las Vegas last month, the company provided what may be a glimpse of the future by unveiling its new FFZERO1 concept—a smart, connected, fully electric vehicle that the company says is inspired by its design and engineering vision for the future.
“Over the past 18 months, we’ve assembled an extraordinary group of over 550 talented individuals in California, plus 200 more globally,” said Nick Sampson, Faraday Future’s senior vice president of product R&D, in a presentation at CES. “But regardless of our backgrounds, we all share a common goal: to profoundly move the world in better, cleaner, and more intelligent ways that connect us effortlessly to the way we choose to live. To meet that goal, we must anticipate the future and act upon it with speed, decisiveness, and a willingness to be more like a technology company rather than an automotive company.”
Faraday Future is taking a multi-disciplinary approach to vehicle design with its user centered Variable Platform Architecture (VPA), a modular platform optimized for manufacturing electric vehicles. Built on a flexible battery layout and multiple powertrain configurations, the platform offers the potential to quicken the manufacturing process, delivering what the company calls “an extremely diverse range of vehicles to market, faster and more efficiently than previously thought possible.”
“VPA provides us with many powerful possibilities—it’s a designer’s dream,” said Richard Kim, Faraday Future’s global head of design, in a presentation at CES. “Imagine on this architecture, you could design a luxury sedan, maybe a crossover, a compact car, an SUV, even a pickup truck. Virtually anything is possible.”
Refocusing on the Customer Experience
In a design feature that is said to represent the intersection of technology and automotive engineering, the company has integrated a smartphone directly into the steering column, “allowing the driver to access information, control secondary functions, view live images, track their position—all without having to learn a new control language,” said Kim.
“I think that their approach is indicative of many of the trends that we’re seeing,” said Anthony Schiavo, a research associate at Lux Research, in a phone interview. “If you looked at a car in the 1970s, software and electronics were like 5 percent of the car’s costs. Today, they represent 30 percent of the car’s costs because the car is increasingly an entertainment center, a place to do business, and it needs be connected. And so this multi-system, smart, connected approach is only going to continue to increase by every auto maker. The car is going to get more and more like a piece of personal electronics, essentially, and that’s very much user-driven, and it’s very much multi-disciplinary.”
Ford Motor Company announced plans in December to add 13 new electrified vehicles to its product portfolio by 2020 as part of an additional investment of $4.5 billion in electrified vehicles that the company is making. Ford also reported that its product designs are focusing on the customer experience, rather than just the vehicle itself. As it reimagines how to create user experiences, the company is attempting to redefine how future vehicles are created by “moving from a features-based product development to a customer-experience-led process” that will apply insights from a number of different social science disciplines.
“The challenge going forward isn’t who provides the most technology in a vehicle, but who best organizes that technology in a way that most excites and delights people,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president of product development, in a statement. “By observing consumers, we can better understand which features and strengths users truly use and value and create even better experiences for them going forward.”
Ford’s global investments in social science-based research are geared toward observing how consumers interact with vehicles and gaining new insights into the cognitive, social, cultural, technological, and economic nuances that affect product design, the company reported.
“This new way of working brings together marketing, research, engineering, and design in a new way to create meaningful user experiences, rather than individually developing technologies and features that need to be integrated into a final product,” Nair said in the statement. “We are using new insights from anthropologists, sociologists, economists, journalists, and designers, along with traditional business techniques, to reimagine our product development process, create new experiences, and make life better for millions of people.”
A Mixed-Materials Approach to Lighter Weight, Fuel-Efficient Vehicles
All over the world, standards relating to automotive fuel efficiency and carbon emissions are being put into place. In the United States, corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFÉ) standards are set at 54.5 mpg by 2025. These pressures to meet escalating fuel efficiency requirements have made light-weighting a high priority of every major automaker, leading to the development of structurally efficient designs that integrate multiple materials.
“That efficiency comes with the integration of different types of materials in the form of advanced high strength steels, dual phase steels, different types of aluminum—aluminum castings and aluminum sheet—and, sometimes, magnesium,” said Michael Robinet, managing director at IHS Automotive Advisory, in a phone interview. “And we’re finding increased usage of CFRP—carbon fiber reinforced plastic—and some thermoplastics. So, it’s not just one solution. I think what you’re going to find that’s going to be quite interesting, is that there isn’t one playbook for light-weighting a vehicle.”
Automakers are increasingly adopting a mixed-material approach to light-weighting, one that allows for materials to be strategically incorporated throughout different areas of the vehicle’s structure. A car that has primarily a steel structure, for instance, may also use a mix of aluminum castings, aluminum sheet, advanced high strength steels, and magnesium, as well as carbon fiber reinforced plastic. The strategy opens up multiple possibilities for material usage depending on factors unique to each OEM, such as their internal technology assets, financial health, and supply base capabilities.
“There are a lot of considerations that go into it, and that’s why you’re finding a lot of ‘dual pathing’ going on, where an OEM will follow two paths until they actually have to make a decision,” Robinet said. “That’s usually the case where they have to make a commitment to the material provider, or they have to cut tools, or where it becomes obvious that they need to move in one direction.”
Joining Technologies Are Key to Mixed-Material Manufacturing
Cadillac used what it described as “advanced mixed-material manufacturing techniques,” including a variety of high-tech joining techniques that allow a new method of assembly, to build its new 2016 CT6 luxury sedan. The joining techniques enabled engineers to design an entirely new structure that is reported to have 21 patents pending. Considering the technical issues surrounding the joining of dissimilar materials, it was no small feat.
Although the CT6 has an aluminum-intensive structure, the vehicle also includes 13 different materials that are customized for each area of the car to improve driving dynamics, fuel economy, and cabin quietness. Sixty-four percent of the body structure, including all exterior body panels, is made up of aluminum. The mixed-material approach is reported to have saved 90 kg (198 pounds) over a predominately steel construction.
“With the CT6, we used high-strength aluminum and high-strength steels; lightweight chassis components; we integrate aluminum and steel where it makes sense; we eliminate every gram of mass possible, while achieving world-class performance,” said Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen in a statement.
The General Motors division invested $300 million in its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant to develop new body construction techniques and technologies that would allow various types of advanced and lightweight materials to be combined within the manufacturing environment. A new body shop with new tooling and advanced technologies, including more than 200 robots, was added to the plant, which also builds the Cadillac ELR electrified luxury coupe, among other vehicles.
The CT6 makes strategic use of high-strength steel to reinforce the body structure. High-strength steel is also used in conjunction with high-strength aluminum to create a safety cage surrounding the occupants, and is the only material used in the structural portion of the B-pillar. The material aids vehicle ingress, egress, and visibility, in addition to providing mass savings and added cabin quietness. The rear of the vehicle includes a new high-strength aluminum impact bar, while front and side impact zones use a combination of high-strength aluminum and steel to further increase passenger safety.
Engineers faced new challenges in manufacturing the CT6’s mixed-material vehicle structure, including the difficulties of joining dissimilar materials. The CT6 engineering team got around them by using a combination of different methods that included patented aluminum spot welding technology; aluminum laser welding, for seamless joining of exterior panels; self-piercing rivets, for joining different types of materials together with a clean appearance; and flow drill screws, used in conjunction with adhesive. Aluminum arc welding and structural adhesive were also separately used for CT6 body assembly, according to Cadillac.
Engineers selected the best joining method depending on material combination and body location. Twenty-eight robots, descending on the vehicle body in two separate framing stations, were used to weld the inner and outer vehicle frames. The robots, mounted above and beside the vehicle, were able to join the body-in-white together from all angles and also reach beneath it.
The Multi-System Car of the Future
As important as they are, lighter-weight advanced materials are not the only route to achieving higher fuel efficiency. Instead, automotive designers should consider them as one of several options in an expanding design toolbox, according to Lux Research’s Anthony Schiavo, lead author of the report “Building the Car of 2025: How to Cost-Effectively Get to 54.5 MPG Using the Right Mix of Advanced Technologies.” Schiavo sees the industry trending toward vehicles in which multiple systems—including electrification, fuels, sensors, and software, as well as materials—compete for a slice of the automotive fuel efficiency pie.
“As a materials engineer, I go to conferences, and I hear people talking about the multi-material car, how the car of the future is going to be multi-material,” said Schiavo in a phone interview. “Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t really capture the full view of the car of the future. The car of the future is going to be multi-system, and if you’re thinking about a multi-material vehicle, you’re not thinking far ahead enough. You need to think about a multi-system vehicle, and you need to think about the full range of technologies that are available to you. If the goal is to reach a fuel target, then you need to be thinking on a multi-system level, but light-weighting is just one of those systems.”
In a webinar titled “0 to 100: The Rapidly Accelerating Future of Automotive Efficiency,” Schiavo noted that automotive OEMs are facing competition from new sources, the likes of which they haven’t seen before.
“Companies like Apple are talking increasingly about moving into the automotive space. Tesla, of course, has done a very high profile job of bringing electric vehicles to the public mind. And Google has been working significantly on its self-driving car,” he said. “These new companies are also bringing new technologies with them, whether it’s advanced, lighter, stronger materials, plug-in hybrids and EVs, self-driving features, and alternative fuel sources.
“What’s important to realize is that all of these different options—advanced materials, electrification, alternative fuels, and autonomy—are going to contribute to the future of automotive fuel efficiency, and no one solution by itself will be enough for any automaker. So automakers are going to have to place their bets now on not only which technologies to back, but what mix of technologies to back. They’re going to be under a lot of pressure to make the right decisions, because if they don’t, it’s going to cost them billions—potentially, even more.”
Schiavo told D2P that autonomous driving features are coming for reasons of safety, and that vehicle electrification is poised to “really, really impact the need for light weight.”
“Right now, what I see is that electrification is just a much more cost-effective route for improving the fuel efficiency of the car,” said Schiavo. “A big part of what’s driving the adoption of carbon fiber is the regulations, and what people are increasingly going to do to meet those regulations is that they’re going to pivot to electrification.”
Electrification options available today include 12- to 48-volt micro-hybrid, or “stop-start” technologies that turn off a car’s engine when it would otherwise be idling and then quickly restart it when it’s time to move. They also span the range of hybrid gas-electric vehicles and full battery-electric vehicles.
A car maker without any electrification in its vehicle would probably need to take almost half the weight out of the car in order to meet the CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025, Schiavo said. They might need to remove about 500 to 600 kilograms from a 1400 kilogram car, for example. But with a 48-volt micro-hybrid system, they would probably only need to remove about half that much weight—250 kilograms or so. Schiavo believes that in order to meet the 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency requirement by 2025, automakers will rely primarily on aluminum light-weighting and 48-volt micro-hybrids, as well as increasing bio-fuel content.
How will the trend toward multi-system vehicles impact automotive design? Schiavo said that automakers will have more flexibility in their designs, and are likely to leverage that flexibility to maximize the benefits they can achieve by pitting these groups of technologies against each other.
“Everything is pointing towards this direction of increased flexibility and increased choice,” said Schiavo. “OEMs are going to have the ability to choose to implement whatever the best technology is at that moment before that cycle year or design year of cars. They’re going to have a lot more freedom and flexibility, and they’re going to exercise that freedom and flexibility.”