Unlocking the potential of lightweighting in vehicles to meet CO2 targets

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Patrik Ragnarsson [European Aluminium]

Although electrification will undoubtedly play a large role in decarbonising road transport, the obvious but often overlooked solution is lightweighting, argues Patrik Ragnarsson.

Patrik Ragnarsson is ‎Senior Automotive & Transport Manager at European Aluminium.

Following the historic COP21 agreement and the ambitious targets the EU has pledged to achieve it, European car manufacturers will have no choice than to use every tool in their toolbox in order to meet their emissions targets in a cost-efficient way.

Looking back, much of the focus has been on engines – improving efficiency and to some extent downsizing. Although electrification will undoubtedly play a large role in the future, the obvious but often overlooked solution is lightweighting.

From diesel to electric, lightweighting makes all cars more efficient. The beauty of lightweighting is that it reduces the energy needed to drive any vehicle from A to B; and brings all associated benefits like CO2 reduction, better air quality and cost savings.

Unfortunately, the design of the EU CO2 standards for cars is not encouraging the true potential of lightweighting. By basing the individual manufacturers’ specific targets on the weight of their vehicles, lightweighting becomes less cost-effective than it would under a technology neutral (such as a size-based) regulation.

Historically, there has been a resistance against too many changes in the modalities of the regulation. The industry has preferred certainty and a status-quo in the burden sharing between manufacturers.

As the post-2020 CO2 targets will be based on the new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP), there is now a golden opportunity to improve the technological neutrality of the regulation.

When moving to a new test cycle, the manufacturers will all face a large number of uncertainties. The difference in measured CO2 value between the new and the old test procedure will differ depending on vehicle type and specification. The test mass of the vehicles will also change. These aspects alone will introduce more uncertainties than a change of the utility parameter from weight to size.

We are also expecting a huge technological leap over the coming 10 years. Car manufacturers will most likely need to increase the sales of fully electric and plug-in hybrid cars to meet consumer demand and reach future ambitious CO2 targets set by EU legislation.

This will have an effect on the average weight of the vehicles as electrified vehicles carry around heavy components such as batteries and electric motors. With a weight based regulation, the manufacturer’s future target will depend on

  1. the average weight of the cars sold by the individual manufacturer in 2025 or 2030;
  2. the average weight of all cars sold in EU in 2025 or 2030.

With the expected technology evolution, it will be very difficult to forecast this development and therefore also very difficult for manufacturers to estimate what their future target actually will be.

Additionally, abandoning the weight-based regulation would be less expensive for manufacturers; a recent study has shown that adopting a footprint-based approach to achieving the 2025 CO2 target would be 16 percent cheaper than the existing approach.

Another option for phasing out the mass-based approach and to simplify the system even further would be to apply the same percentage reduction in emissions to all manufacturers (similar to what is now applied for niche manufacturers).

This would allow manufacturers to choose the most cost-efficient approach. Asking all individual manufacturer groups to reduce their emissions by a fixed percentage between 2021 and 2025 would give them the full flexibility to choose their CO2 reduction strategy. Lightweighting and engine efficiency improvement would be treated equally, ensuring technology neutrality and increasing cost-efficiency.

The positive impact a better regulatory design can have on innovation should also not be underestimated. The US has long used the vehicle footprint approach as the basis for its fuel efficiency legislation.

This has already dramatically accelerated US investments in the deployment of lightweight technologies. Lightweighting is a strategic priority for the European car industry and would benefit entire industrial clusters. Insufficient encouragement to invest in this area could see any competitive advantage quickly lost.

The advantages of lightweighting are indisputable and in the case of aluminium, the technology is tried, tested and already available. EU policymakers should seize this opportunity to realise its potential.