The new automobile industry

As General Motors prepares to enter bankruptcy court, autoworkers across the country are waiting to see if their jobs will evaporate.  What many don’t realize is that building cars will probably be very different in the future.  In order to make cars as light as possible, composite carbon materials will probably be used.  Lighter and stronger than steel, composites are now used in building aircraft.  The Volvo Open 70 sailboats used in the Volvo Ocean Race are built entirely of carbon, making them about the most high-tech sailboats in the world.

Not only is steel likely to be phased out in automobile construction, but the kinds of motors used is going to change.  Electric motors are already in use in hybrid cars, and other electric cars are on the drawing boards.  Measured in terms of electicity, todays cars consume about one kilowatt for every horsepower.  Which means driving your car for an hour consumes somewhere on the order of 150 to 200 kilowatt hours.  Burning ten 100 watt light bulbs for an hour consumes 1 kilowatt, so you would have to have 2,000 100 watt light bulbs burning to consume the same amount of electricity as driving a car does.

So autoworkers will have to be electricians, able to understand wiring diagrams, batteries, capacitors, generators, and electric motors.  Sheet metal workers will become composites fabricators. Foundry workers will have to be retrained to work with aluminum, which will take the place of steel whenever possible.  Frames will be made of composites, and even engines might be made with composites, using steel sleeves in the cylinders.

All of this will be to reduce the weight of the vehicle dramatically.  The less the vehicle weighs, the less power it takes to move it.  To be able to drive long distances or at high speeds, weights will have to come down to around 2,000 to 2,500 pounds from the 4,000 to 6,000 pounds many vehicles weigh today.  Reducing weight wherever possible will be the priority, as luxury gives way to utility.  Our image of the automobile as a mobile living room, with various sources of entertainment is likely to change to that of a austere box on wheels to get from one place to another.

Whether the automobile industry will be able to cope with these changes remains to be seen, and new companies may end up replacing the giants we know today.  Willingness to change is not one of the qualities one associates with the Big Three of Detroit.

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