Weight is the enemy of performance. Nothing will cause a greater lack of vehicle performance than just being too heavy. Weight makes a car slower in a straight line. Weight makes a car slower in corners. Weight makes it hard to bring a vehicle to a stop. Weight makes a car get bad fuel economy. Weight diminishes towing capacity. Weight makes a car unable to carry a heavier load. In no way, shape, or form is weight a good thing for automotive performance of any kind. This includes the performance of trucks and SUVs.
High tech gadgets and gizmos are pretty obvious because we see them and use them, and we see that they are ever increasing. One of the advancements in automotive technology that most people don’t notice is the ever lighter automobiles that we have on the roads. They may not seem any lighter, but they are. Considering all of the things found in a car today, if engineers didn’t find innovative ways to makes cars lighter, they would be so heavy you might need a CDL to legally drive your minivan to the grocery store.
The famous British engineer, and founder of the Lotus Car Company, Colin Chapman, famously said of making cars perform well, “Simplify, then add lightness.” While it may not seem that anything in the world of car design is simpler than it used to be, when it comes to construction of some of the major sections or systems of the car, such as the frame and chassis, engineers continue to simplify things.
One of Chapman’s greatest contributions to the world of motorsport was the monocoque chassis that he developed for both Formula 1 and Indy Car in the early 60’s. He did not invent the monocoque chassis but he recognized how lightweight and strong it could be and he came p with a design suited to racing. This was a major simplification over using a tube frame chassis as had been the standard in auto racing.
Adding lightness in the manner prescribed by Mr. Chapman, is becoming more radical than it has ever been. Chapman built his first monocoque chassis out of aluminum to make the already simplified and lightweight design even lighter. He was adding lightness. This concept is really taking over the modern world of automotive design.
The materials that manufacturers are using today are varied and sometimes downright exotic. We have plenty of aluminum in modern automotive design. The new Ford F150 is a great example of adding lightness to increase performance. Over time we are certainly going to see a lot more of this material used in places where traditionally something heavier was deemed good enough.
For the past year GM has been bad mouthing Ford trucks (nothing new here) over the switch to aluminum. They have been saying that nothing can beat a good old steel truck in terms of overall strength. The fact of the matter is aluminum can be made to be just as strong when used in the proper alloy, and correctly applied. Furthermore, recent insider information on the next refresh of the full-size pickup offerings from GM indicate that the Chevy and GMC will be adding more aluminum body parts, and that the next generation of these trucks will be more aluminum intensive all around.
Aluminum is the latest thing for big trucks but in some areas of automotive engineering it’s getting to be a little old school. Carbon fiber started out as a material that was only found in supercars, and even then it was really only used in the body work. Today, an entire chassis may be made from carbon fiber. Suspension components such as springs, control arms, and sway bars are made of carbon fiber. They even make wheels and driveshafts from carbon fiber. This saves tremendous amounts of weight which drastically improves performance in every way.
Sometimes carbon fiber might not have the right look or feel so engineers might build some parts out of a material that is essentially galvanized carbon fiber. This gives it the look and feel of aluminum or magnesium, but it is much lighter. How strange it is to think that by modern standards, sometimes aluminum is just too heavy.
The engineers designing today’s supercars may soon be turning their attention to yet a newer, lighter, and stronger material made from what is called carbon nanotube technology. This material is 20 times stronger per pound than carbon fiber. This means that a lot less of it can be used to fabricate a structure, which will make that structure much lighter. Carbon nanotubes are interlocking filaments that form a rigid structure. These tube-like filaments are 2000 times smaller than the fibers used in normal carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is already so much lighter and stronger than steel that it’s hard to imagine anything better, but nanotubes might well be the next big thing.
Simplify and add lightness. This is happening all over the place and will continue to happen in order to increase efficiency and performance. Simplicity and weight reduction always makes the fast cars faster and the not so fast cars get better fuel economy.
You might be thinking that all these high tech designs and materials are only found in performance cars but this is not true. As exotic materials become more inexpensive they have become more common place in the average car. Since the beginning of the automobile, things have always moved in a manner that allows the expensive cars to get the fancy designs and amazing technology first, but it always finds its way down to the basic cars and trucks. It used to be only the high-end cars had power windows; now, it’s almost impossible to find anything without them. No doubt nanotube technology, or whatever else is out there, will be the same.