In April, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly established new federal rules that set the first-ever national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards for all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. The rules, which will significantly increase the fuel economy of the vehicles starting with the 2012 model year, will conserve about 1.8 billion barrels of oil, and reduce nearly a billion tons of GHG emissions over the lives of the vehicles covered and give lightweighting composites an opportunity to shine.

The final rules, issued by DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and EPA, establish increasingly stringent fuel economy standards under NHTSA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy program and GHG emission standards under the Clean Air Act for vehicles produced in model years 2012 through 2016.

Starting with 2012 model year vehicles, the rules require automakers to improve fleet-wide fuel economy and reduce fleet-wide GHG emissions by approximately five percent every year. NHTSA has established fuel economy standards that strengthen each year, reaching an estimated 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016.

So what exactly does this mean for composites? A greater focus on fuel economy brings lightweighting to the forefront. With an oft-cited advantage of composites being a lighter alternative to substances such as metal, it only seems natural that composites emerge as a prime option to meet this directive.

John Schweitzer, senior director of government affairs for the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) says there’s a vehicle technology program at DOE that has a list of technologies for applications like hybrid engines and alternative fuel vehicles. “The problem is, it skips over glass composite materials and goes on to things like carbon nanotubes, lignum and magnesium. I think composites should be in that mix, but they’re not, even though they can offer a significant improvement in fuel economy through weight reduction.”

However, Jim deVries, manager of the manufacturing research department at Ford Research Laboratories, says conventional composites alone may not be enough. “Glass composites do not achieve the weight savings created in aluminum and magnesium, so I think the composites industry must look towards alternative reinforcements, ways to make conventional composites more lightweight.”

Which Fibers Win Out?

Carbon fiber represents a more commonplace solution to the lightweighting issue. “We see more emphasis on carbon fiber,” says Hamid Kia, group manager for polymer composites at General Motors. “The dollar-per-pound saved related to mass savings is going up because companies are more willing to pay more up front.”