Insight: Automakers race to lose weight

Fri Nov 18, 2011 7:52am EST
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By Ludwig Burger and Helen Massy-Beresford


Beneath the high ceilings of a factory in the wheat fields of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, Lamborghini engineers are building a new supercar. Called the Aventador, it has been described as the closest thing to a stealth fighter jet you'll see on the road. It's also a high-profile symbol of a strategic battle taking shape in the auto industry.

Silhouetted against grey walls, workers in black polo shirts adorned with Lamborghini's gold raging bull logo guide sheets of black material into a vacuum-controlled cutting machine, before pressing and shaping the pieces into huge moulds. These parts will make the chassis of the Aventador, which is one of the first cars to have its entire body built of carbon fiber composites, an alternative to metals prized by plane makers for their lightweight malleability and strength. The materials give designers "freedom to design aggressively," says Lamborghini's Technology Manager Massimiliano Corticelli.

The materials -- plastics reinforced by synthetic fibers -- will also allow the kind of performance so important to Lamborghini drivers: 0-62 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds with a top speed of around 217 miles per hour. But their potential value lies beyond the handful of people who can pay a starting price of 263,000 euros ($355,000) for a car that rolls off the assembly line at just 20 a week.

Partly as a consequence of emissions reduction targets, mass-market auto-makers need to produce lighter cars. For the next few years, auto-makers such as Peugeot, Fiat, Volkswagen and Daimler expect weight reductions to come largely from using aluminum. But composites are 30 percent lighter than aluminum and 50 percent lighter than steel. If car makers can get the price down -- composites currently cost at least 10 times as much as aluminum and 30 times as much as steel, according to Volkswagen -- they hope to be able to use them in the mass-market.

"We have been working on making cars lighter for several years, but the tightening up of regulation for reducing emissions by 2020 makes it necessary in reality to move toward breakthrough solutions," says Louis David, materials expert at French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen.

There is progress. Peugeot and other carmakers already make some small parts out of composite material but do not yet use the technology for large parts. But BMW, which plans by the end of 2013 to roll out electric cars with entire passenger cabins made from a composite known as carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), is leading the race.

Helped by Germany's richest woman, Susanne Klatten, the luxury auto maker has been building close ties with Europe's only supplier of carbon fiber technology; it consolidated its hold this week with a share purchase.   Continued...

<p>The new Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 is pictured during the second media day of the 81st Geneva Motor Show at the Palexpo in Geneva in this March 2, 2011 file photo. Beneath the high ceilings of a factory in the wheat fields of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, Lamborghini engineers are building a new supercar. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/Files</p>