Volkswagen, one of the pioneers of the hybrid car a few years back, is again taking a primary role in improving fuel economy as the leading partner in a five million euro European Union research project into the creation of ultra-light cars.

The crippling effect of recent fuel blockades across the continent has helped concentrate minds in Brussels. The initiative, led by VW, boasts 15 partners, including Volvo, Renault and DaimlerChrysler. Along with a host of research organisations throughout Europe, it is bidding to help develop the new generation of energy efficient automobiles.

Named TECABS - Technologies for Carbon Fibre Modular Automotive Structures - the project aims to provide the technology to halve body weight using low cost carbon composite structures, thereby reducing CO2 emissions.

Volkswagen spokesman for environmental and technical communications, Harald Fletcher, told "The question is whether a light car is going to be something everyone will go out and buy in the future. I think this is going to be a very important study, but it's going to take several years to see what the effects will be on the motor industry.

"It's important to look at the directions we want to take, but that doesn¹t mean you will be able to drive the one litre car next year." He added: "Our chairman has said he is going to ride in a one litre car and he will do just that."

There's nothing new about using plastics to lighten automobile weight; the Citroen BX with plastic bonnet and tailgate first appeared in 1983.

Of course a great deal of work is already being done and the first generation of truly effective hybrid autos are already on the market - notably from Honda and Toyota - and alternative fuels including LPG, CNG and hydrogen (pioneered largely by BMW) are also in use.

Meanwhile, petrol engines are becoming more efficient. VW and Renault are working on a one litre petrol turbocharged unit designed to produce the same power as a conventional 1.6 litre motor: effectively offering a 30 per cent reduction in fuel consumption.

But there is still room for improvement. A European Commission spokesman spelt out their thinking on this next quantum step in car manufacture and efficiency, saying: "If the weight of the current vehicle can be brought down to 500 kilograms, and if current projects on downsized gasoline engines are successful, then fuel consumption could be reduced to less than 1 litre per 100 kilometres."

The Lupo 3L TDI

VW is using its fuel-miser Lupo as the template for the project. The car - unveiled at the Paris Motor Show - is able to break the 'three litres per 100 kilometres' barrier. It is due to go on sale next year and has been described by Volkswagen AG chairman Ferdinand Piech as the most environmentally-friendly car in the world.

But if the research project is successful, the next generation environment-friendly cars will have only 30% of the current number of body parts, cutting assembly costs to make this an affordable option for the man in the street.

Volkswagen is concentrating on making a lighter body to lessen fuel consumption. Mr Fletcher said: "We are already using aluminium and magnesium in the three litre car's steering wheel - the wheel has a magnesium core. Previously, that was steel but now it's a lot lighter than in previous models. The rear door has been replaced by aluminium, with the inner parts made of magnesium. It's a very difficult thing to get aluminium and magnesium together in a construction.

"We still use a lot of steel to make the car at the moment. But we think that a light construction of magnesium and aluminium is going to be very important for the Volkswagen group in the future."

But a new material means a new concept in body parts and shape. The car which will benefit from the EC research project will not be a Lupo: it will be cigar shaped and Volkswagen admit they don't know how the public might respond to the concept.

"The crippling effect of recent fuel blockades across the continent has helped concentrate minds in Brussels"

For any car produced in Germany recycling is key. "For some years now Volkswagen have been ensuring that as much of the car as possible is recyclable following a European Commission directive," Fletcher said, adding: "it will of course be very important in the design of this car as with all our new models."The development of an intelligent car is the key to Volkswagen's concept. This is evident with the current three litre Lupo. Says Fletcher: "Its gear box is made from aluminium and a computer changes the gears, ensuring that fuel usage is as economical as possible."

Use of intelligent systems are hailed as the way ahead by the Volkswagen research team. But body weight will be critical. Head of the Unit for Automotive Research in Brussels Christos Tokamanis said: "75% of fuel efficiency is down to transferring mass from here to there, so if you can get a lighter 'body in white' [industry-speak for the fully complete but unpainted bodyshell] you will get a far more economical car.

"Our partners are redesigning the car using a blank sheet. The details are currently confidential to the consortium. They will be testing various configurations - and investigating how to integrate different components, reducing the number of assembly operations and parts."

He added: "Now is the right time, with the price of petrol, to push this project forwards. People have historically bought cars on the initial purchase price. But now, if I have a car which burns less than three litres per 100 km, someone who buys it can save a lot of money."

So how will the project's partners achieve their target of 100 kilometres per litre of fuel? Partners will be investigating ploughing resources into up-front design methods to save costs later on - using 'design solution modular methodology'. They will also use computer simulations to predict performance instead of costly trials for crash, vibration and environmental behaviour and will develop high-speed, low cost manufacturing processes to reduce the number of parts, achieving low cost assembly and reliability.

The Toyota Prius

The results of the research will be made available to partners, giving them a leading edge in efficient, environmentally friendly technology. The partners in the EU project are not the only ones with their eye on the light car. The Audi A8 could be the shape of the future with its lightweight construction consisting largely of aluminium. The new Passat can go 200 km on only six litres.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, both now on sale in Japan, the United States and Europe, use differing combinations of electric and petrol engines: at up to 2.75 litres/100km (103 miles per gallon) they are catching the eyes of those consumers who want to conserve fuel.

BMW are soon to launch a hydrogen powered car and the Ford Th!nk uses electric power. It is thought parallel research and development is currently under way in Detroit where potentially reduced auto manufacturing costs are a major attraction.

Steel - the material that has been used to build cars for over a hundred years - is doing its best to get ready for the lightweight era. Porsche has recently completed a four-year development project to reduce the weight of steel bodies by 25%. The $US20 million project - the Ultra Light Steel Auto Body - was paid for by a consortium of suppliers across the world. Although not offering the large weight savings offered by the composites, UCLAB is clearly an attractive stop-gap as it's available for car makers to use without having to undergo comprehensive re-tooling and large scale workforce retraining.

"It depends on whether people will buy a light car"

In a bid to balance the costs, the EU project will also focus on the need to cut the number of components actually used in the car. A spokesman said: "The reduction in the number of parts would make this car concept cost-effective despite the fact that the costs per part are expected to be higher than for conventional manufacturing. By the end of the project - in early 2004 - scientists should have developed and tested the technologies and methods necessary for commercial production at a rate of 50 units per day."

To achieve the necessary economies, research into the production process will clearly be key. While it is easy to make a lightweight prototype - Formula One has been doing so for many years - the challenge of mass production will be paramount. High speed and low cost manufacturing production processes using cost effective and quick preform and resin processes will be employed.

Simulation technology will be used to test the vehicle wherever possible as well as to develop formulae to translate performance needs into feasible parts. The men at Volkswagen are reticent when asked what the effect of this research - and their one litre/100km car - will be on the automobile industry.

"It's difficult to say what this will mean for the manufacturers," commented Fletcher. "It depends on whether people will buy a light car: it is going to be different from conventional cars. We just don't know if people are going to like cigar-shaped cars."

He is also still vague on the thorny issue of the cost of their supercar, saying "At Volkswagen we always try to keep costs down. In our research we will of course try and cut costs as much as possible."

The Honda Insight

As always, the future of the research and development of light cars lies in the hands of the public. Every consumer has a list of desirables: the perfect car must have a great body and excellent performance. The question is whether the recent fuel crises have put petrol consumption further up the list of must-haves.

Will Europeans really choose to speed up the autobahn past gleaming BMWs and Citroens in an oversized cigar? Time will tell.

Author: Kate Ellerton