Use of light weight components will be the way to 54.5 mpg. The wheel configuration is reminiscent of the Dale that was two wheels in the front and one in the back which was supposed to reduce the weight enough to get 70 mpg. Overall, that vehicle was a hoax, but there were some parts of the design that could be used today to get to the 54.5 mark.
Although the specific strength of the car is still very good, on absolute terms it is not. For example if this car would have a collision with a regular road car then safety is quite a concern.
The materials used are very high tech and at the moment also very expensive, this is why carbon fibre is still mainly used in race cars and high performance road cars. And when carbon fibre is used at the moment, it is usually solid laminate. The problem with this is the same as the problem with high strength steel, thin sheets offer enough strength but are very easy to bend (low stiffness).
This is were sandwich construction comes in, the thin carbon fibre facings are placed outwards and low density foam is used to fill the gap. Because now the thickness is increased, the stiffness is also increased tremendously.
But this technique comes with a price, you basically have a low strength high stiffness structure and this means that impact resistance is not especially high. I am sure that safe structures can be designed light with these techniques, but versus heavy current cars safety is still less.
I understand the stiffness part of the lightweight materials. And I am willing to bet the overall structure is still considerably stronger than anything else on a lb for lb basis. The overall characteristics of these new materials are really impressive in every respect.
I can't wait to see some of these materials and designs formulated for production vehicles and then subjected to crash tests. Eventually the combination of lightweight, stiffness, impact resistance, deformability and strength will be engineered into vehicles capable of protecting the passengers during high impact crashes, probably assisted by air bag devices.
If the auto industry CAFE is going to reach 54.5 mpg in the next 15 years, it's going to have to draw from a variety of new technologies, including materials similar to these. I would think the high stiffness bodes well.
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