Losing Weight for the Climate’s Sake

Heavy but not sluggish

Although automobiles have become steadily safer and more comfortable in recent decades, they have also gained a lot of weight in the process. “Drivers put much higher demands on their vehicles today than was the case even ten years ago,” says Julian Haspel, a project manager for global application development at the High Performance Materials business unit of the Leverkusen-based specialty chemicals company LANXESS. “Certain types of equipment such as power windows and air conditioning are now considered indispensable.”

Major automakers also have a lot of ideas in the pipeline to make driving easier. Many of these ideas require new sensors or additional small motors. Safety systems are making great progress as well, and features such as multiple airbags and crash-resistant occupant cells are now defining a high standard of automotive safety that nobody seriously wants to do without.

“In 2012, the latest generation of Volkswagen’s best-selling Golf model weighed 450 kilograms more than its angular ancestor of the 1970s,” says Haspel, who is an expert in lightweight engineering. Even though the trend toward more weight was already reversed in the current model series, the Golf VII has a curb weight of at least 1.2 tons, depending on its equipment. “However, you also have to take into account the fact that cars have become bigger in recent years,” adds Haspel. Despite their weight, today’s cars are by no means sluggish, because engine developers have done a good job of boosting the automobiles’ performance over the past few years.

Emissions have to decline

However, the automotive industry’s solution of simply sticking a more powerful engine underneath the hood will become more difficult in the future. “This is mainly due to climate change,” explains Haspel. “After all, engines turn fuel into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide — it’s a law of nature that can’t be changed.” Although today’s vehicles consume remarkably little fuel compared to earlier generations of cars, the European Commission has nevertheless set a strict new limit, which stipulates that, beginning in 2020, each manufacturer’s vehicles will only be allowed to emit an average of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer. In 2008 the limit was still 165 grams. The new target can only be achieved through further reductions in fuel consumption, since every liter of fuel that is burned emits 2.33 kg (gasoline) or 2.66 kg (diesel) of CO2.

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