Depending on who you read, small car sales are either dominating the auto industry right now or throwing up a smoke screen that will be wiped away as soon as gas prices drop and consumers return to their old, big-car-buying ways. But this obscures a larger issue -- that carmakers can build satisfying big cars that achieve small car fuel-economy.
Really! Pssst... Come closer. I have some news for you: Americans don't like small cars. I know, I know. I'm not happy about it either. But that's just reality. The automakers could dedicate themselves to small cars -- and they have to do this, to a degree, to meet new national emissions and fuel-economy standards -- but these vehicles are never going to be lucrative or popular in the U.S. as big cars.
Small cars get better MPGs (and typically cost less) than big cars because they're lighter and require smaller engines to achieve acceptable performance. So if the automakers want to break out of the cycle of consumers demanding small cars when gas prices are high, then reverting to larger vehicles when gas prices drop, they need to bring small car mileage to big rides.
A process called lightweighting could help achieve this. On the experimental fringe, vehicles can be made from composite materials, which offer the strength of steel at a fraction of the weight. Metals that are less heavy can also be used. Automakers can also combine conventional materials with lightweight composites and metals to shave pounds and enhance mileage.
Preserving safety, cutting costs
A lot of consumers hear "light" and assume that cars and trucks built this way won't be safe. But they could in fact be just as safe if not safer than vehicles on the road now. Lightweight materials can also provide cost savings, and -- according to this MIT analysis -- offer environmental advantages.
But the real plus is that the cost structure of big cars can be preserved. Large vehicles bring in higher profits than small cars. The consumer has already been "trained" to pay more for a bigger, and in some cases more luxurious, set of wheels. Building them out of composites and downsizing the engines, without losing any of the big-car performance that people have come to expect, doesn't have to change that.
So what's the holdup?
Even if the current trend persists and consumers continue to buy small cars in the expectation that gas prices are rising, prices will inevitably come down. The automakers have done a better job of preparing for a small-car surge this time around, having learned at least something from the last gas crunch in 2008. But what they'd really like to do is develop vehicles that are gas-price-cycle independent, particularly given that the cycles are getting closer together, making it difficult for carmakers to rely on their traditional four-year new product cycles.
An investment now in lightweighting, along with a focus of new fuel-efficient engines technologies (as well as power-boosting stuff, such as turbocharging), will pay serious dividends later. Not only will the auto industry become a leader in engineering new composite components, it will also finally have big-car platforms that, if you'll excuse the joke, offer everything that small cars do.
Of course, the major automakers could always take a pass on this one and figure that they can make enough money when gas is cheap to offset their loses when it's expensive. But that would just leave the lightweighting frontier to Chinese and Indian firms, which can already see a competitive advantage in this area.