Pink car with the hood up

Car Materials: a History

There’s roughly one car for every ten people on the planet today. A quarter of the world’s cars are in the United States itself. Car manufacturers produce over 40 million cars per year. A typical American spends an average of 18 days a year (72 minutes a day) driving. 

Japanese firms make the most cars, a quarter of the world’s entire fleet comes from Japan. In 2006, Japanese manufacturers built cars overseas more than in their own country.

Cars have been made from materials such as iron, aluminum, plastic, steel, glass, rubber, copper, petroleum products, and others. As the focus has switched to fuel economy and pollution prevention, the materials of the vehicles we drive have reflected that. In 2007, the average car contained 2,400 pounds of steel, and the average pickup truck or SUV used nearly 3,000 pounds.

Current Vehicle Composition

Today, steel makes up the skeleton of the vehicle. Door beams, roof and body panels are all made of steel on most cars. However, with the focus turning towards fuel economy, cars have increased their use of plastic. A good portion of vehicles contain 50% of plastic material. Plastics have a durable structure, have the capability of taking on any shape, and additionally, car manufacturers can cheaply provide plastic products. With plastic significantly reducing the weight of vehicles due to its drastically lighter composition to steel, the fuel economy of vehicles with plastic parts increases. 

A 10% reduction in vehicle weight results in a direct 8 % improvement in fuel economy. Due to this correlation, many manufacturers utilize different materials to reduce weight, and (depending upon cost factors and materials) increase the durability of the vehicle as well.

The composition of the vehicle in materials has gone deeper than the skeleton and exterior of the vehicle. The make of the engine has changed as well. Traditionally iron blocks were used inside the engine but now production makers have developed aluminum construction for these parts. Accordingly, modern vehicles contain 9% aluminum whereas in 1990 they contained 5% and 2% in 1970. 

Alternative Materials

By cutting down on a vehicle’s weight, you can cut down on oil consumption, combat climate change, and extend the ranges of cars. Various materials that have been tested for vehicle composition include magnesium, carbon fiber, titanium, and aluminum. 

Magnesium has a high stiffness and strength rating, it’s compatible with existing equipment infrastructure for vehicle part stamping. However, magnesium is an expensive material that isn’t readily available in the United States. 

Carbon Fiber is half the weight of steel yet is 4 times stronger. Carbon fiber has the potential to reduce vehicle weight up to 70% and has the potential to take on complex forms. The drawback of carbon fiber is the production of this material is exceptionally high. Additionally, joining carbon fiber with other materials remains difficult. Furthermore, carbon fiber has challenges associated with vehicle model performance. Currently, there are insufficient amounts of fiber to meet the needs of the automotive industry to use this material. 

Titanium has a high strength to weight ratio as in the weight of the material remains low while the endurance of the material is high. Titanium can withstand high temperatures as well giving it the potential to reduce weight in the engine. However, titanium presents difficulties with formability. In other words, titanium wears out stamping molds faster than lesser grades of material. 

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