Image credit: Aksonov via iStock
Lightweighting is one of the hottest topics in automotive design, and it seems that governments and manufacturers alike are keen to learn from the best. The ideas driving Formula 1 (F1) technology are being harnessed to boost efficiency and slash emissions in road vehicles - and the lessons we can learn from this will be crucial when it comes to creating innovative and environmentally-friendly models in the coming years.
The rise of lightweighting
Of course, lightweighting is by no means a new concept in automotive design - from F1 to road vehicles, it has been used for decades to enhance driving dynamics and fuel consumption. Today, however, it is becoming a central design element.
The driving force behind this shift is an enhanced worldwide focus on emissions reduction. Across the planet, governments are setting strict emissions targets that get more ambitious over time. The use of lightweight materials is key in reaching those targets and, as such, the use of such materials is expected to expand rapidly in the sector. Indeed, according to McKinsey & Company's 2012 'Lightweight, heavy impact' report, the automotive industry will see a significant rise in the use of such materials, shifting from 30 per cent in 2012 to 70 per cent by 2030.
The focus on emissions reduction fuels the need for lightweighting technology in more ways than one. For instance, simply making vehicles lighter will not cut emissions as much as is necessary. Therefore, other techniques, such as electrification, will be needed to achieve these goals. However, electrification also adds extra weight to vehicles, meaning once again lightweighting must be
employed to safeguard success. This will lead to the increased use of lightweight materials and the intelligent use of tapes and adhesives to bind different materials together.
F1 tech entering mainstream vehicle design
The advantages of F1 lightweight design principles for the wider automotive industry are now well recognised. In fact, the UK government has even allocated funding for such principles to be used to design greener cars. While the focus here is on consumer vehicles, the implication for the direction of the wider automotive industry is clear; speciality vehicles have to meet emissions targets, and the lessons to be learned from F1 can help move lightweighting design forward enough to meet them.
Announced in March 2016, the £38.2 million fund will harness F1 technology to help make cars lighter, more fuel-efficient and help electric cars travel further. Initially announced in the Budget, the money will be shared across more than 130 car manufacturers, research centres and technology companies to improve the nation's emissions-cutting technology. Some £1.7 million has been allocated to a consortium specifically for lightweighting technology, which will mean applying the thinking behind both F1 and space satellites design to decrease weight while increasing fuel efficiency.
For decades, lightweighting has been a crucial element of F1 car design. Allowing for higher speeds, greater fuel efficiency and robust construction, it has been pivotal for some of the organisation's most remarkable innovations.The lessons that we can take from the racetrack and onto the road are manyfold:
* Fuel economy, strength and longevity
Both the materials and manufacturing processes used in F1 make an impact on fuel economy, the durability of the car and its longevity. For example, carbon fibre combines strength and lightness to enhance each of these elements - and it's clear to see that the effects would significantly benefit road vehicles. What's particularly interesting is that their use in F1, combined with the focus on emissions reduction and the trend towards learning from F1 technology, is helping to gradually reduce the cost of such composite materials.
Until now, the prices associated with this kind of lightweight, strong material have prohibited its proliferation into the mainstream market - whether that be consumer cars or speciality vehicles.
From F1, we learn that the adoption of such materials and techniques is necessary to create the kind of performance that's desired. This means it is likely to transition from being a high-end, specialised design element to a staple one across the sector.
* Material selection
F1 technology being harnessed for the innovative design and manufacture of road vehicles is not new. In 2010, F1 designer Professor Gordon Murray applied its principles to create iStream technology, which he used to create a compact, lightweight city car that tackled issues such as emissions and traffic congestion. It was built with lightweight yet affordable materials, using techniques such as reinforcing with glass and creating steel tube frames to reduce costs. While these materials may not provide the required strength on their own, the assembly technique, which uses adhesives to bond different materials together, creates a strong end result that is as robust as a conventionally built car.
The intelligent use of materials throughout the car is an important lesson to learn from F1 lightweighting. For example, all F1 cars now use carbon fibre composite brake discs. As well as simply reducing the overall weight of the car, they can operate at higher temperatures, which, when combined with sufficient cooling mechanisms, results in improved performance and safety. Indeed, the stopping distances of F1 cars are significantly shorter than those of road vehicles.
Aerodynamics' role in fuel efficiency is a lesson road vehicle manufacturers learnt from race cars decades ago - but as new technologies evolve, there is always more to learn. Improvements in aerodynamics lead to both cost savings and emissions reduction through the improvement of fuel consumption. Assessing how the shape of race car models can inspire changes to the design of road vehicles to reduce drag is a valuable exercise when it comes to creating a more environmentally-friendly, fuel-efficient vehicle. Similarly, taking inspiration from F1's focus on increasing downforce - traditionally less of a focus for road vehicle design than drag reduction - can also act as a catalyst for innovative models.
* Don't be constrained by the rules
The design engineers behind F1 lightweighting methods are ingenious. This means that, even within the tight regulations of F1 racing, they are able to find loopholes to do things like introduce devices such as exhaust-blown diffusers to give their car an aerodynamic edge. These new systems are frequently banned shortly after being introduced; however, the lesson to take is that not being constrained by the rules can lead to significant advances - and off the tightly controlled race track, such headway is more likely to be welcomed.
* Emissions and cost reductions
What the above lessons culminate in is a wider, single lesson: incorporating lightweighting technology into vehicle designs can yield reductions not only in emissions, but also costs - something that sounds counterintuitive given the historic high cost of materials like carbon fibre.
While F1 isn't concerned with cost reduction, F1 design principles, combined with current trends towards lightweighting, may mean the future application of these principles is a cost-effective measure - especially when it comes to avoiding emissions fines. Plus, the benefits of incorporating such technologies can make a positive impact beyond the vehicles themselves; the presence of fewer polluting parts within the design paves the way for cleaner manufacturing methods and plants too.
There's no doubt that emissions targets are the most potent catalyst behind today's focus on lightweighting. It is likely that, as governments and car manufacturers across the world rally to create more environmentally-friendly solutions, the prohibitively high cost of lightweight materials will become a thing of the past.
Indeed, according to the McKinsey & Company report, the industrialisation of carbon fibre is likely to dramatically slash its price tag - the organisation predicts its cost could decrease by as much as 70 per cent by 2030. Plus, thanks to emissions fines, there is added financial incentive to use such materials, with the report noting that within Europe fines can amount to up to EUR 12,000 for each non-compliant car.
Lightweight materials are also likely to become more varied and used in more diverse ways. In addition to carbon fibre, high-strength steels, plastics, aluminium and sandwich materials
consisting of composites of several of these materials will be used to reduce the weight of both structural and non-structural body parts.
The exact shape these changes will take for speciality vehicles is unclear - so there is exciting potential for design engineers to break the mould. But one lesson we can take from F1 lightweighting is that openness to innovation across all elements, from materials to structural schematics, is key to achieving game-changing results.