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ARPA-E has kicked off the LITECAR challenge for transformative new vehicle design, and the winning entry will have 3D printing written all over it.

Cars

ARPA-E Hooks Up With 3D Printing For $150,000 In Prizes

ARPA-E has kicked off the LITECAR challenge for transformative new vehicle design, and the winning entry will have 3D printing written all over it.

Local Motors, the folks who brought you 3D printing for vehicles and other cutting personal mobility goodies, is kicking off 2015 with a bang. The company has paired up with ARPA-E, the Energy Department office that funds new transformative technologies, to launch a new $150,000 challenge for whoever can come up with a breakthrough design for lightweight cars.

The challenge is called LITECAR for Lightweight Technologies Enabling Complete Automotive Redesign. The basic idea is to boost fuel economy by paring vehicle weight down to the bone. Lightweight vehicles are a big deal these days — Ford, for example, just reworked its iconic F-150 pickup as an all-aluminum vehicle to shave off 700 pounds — so let’s see what Local Motors and ARPA-E expect from the new challenge.

LITECAR lightweight car challenge

LITECAR challenge (courtesy of ARPA-E).

The ARPA-E And Local Motors Throwdown

We’re going to talk about Local Motors in a minute, but first let’s take a look at that new ARPA-E LITECAR challenge:

Create a purely conceptual, novel lightweight vehicle using advanced materials and innovative structural solutions while maintaining or exceeding current vehicle safety standards.

Okay, so that sounds simple enough. However, according to ARPA-E, it has taken about 40 years to not-quite double the average fuel economy for the category of light duty vehicles, from 13 mpg to 24 mpg, and the world can’t really afford to wait another 40 years for another significant improvement.

ARPA-E’s focus on weight is the key. Even though fuel economy has improved in 40 years, apparently the average curb weight of the average vehicle has stalled out at about 4,000 pounds. Since lighter weight translates into better fuel economy (up to 8 percent better for every 10 percent reduction in weight), that’s a good place to start when you want to make big improvements in a big hurry.

 

The sticky wicket is how to maintain high safety standards at a lower weight, and that’s where the challengey part of the challenge comes in.

The LITECAR challenge is designed to encourage participants to look at all aspects of weight and safety, including next-generation materials, advanced manufacturing (3D printing, much?), and other design elements.

Since ARPA-E is in the envelope-pushing business, the agency really is looking for something new, as in a complete, comprehensive redesign:

LITECAR is not looking for incremental improvements but pioneering solutions to tackle this problem. Participants are encouraged to comprehensively redesign the entire vehicle prioritizing lightweight and safe designs.

The ARPA-E Argument For Lightweight Vehicles

More specifically, ARPA-E is not looking at straightup aerodynamic solutions or other approaches of that ilk. They want the car of the future to come down in weight as a first priority.

If you’re thinking that there are easier pathways to improving fuel efficiencies, you’ll have to argue that out with ARPA-E. Here’s a nifty little video that explains where the agency is coming from:

As far as that agency is concerned, lowering the curb weight is the key to maximizing the payoff for improved aerodynamics and other areas of focus:

By lowering the curb weight, the energy required to move the vehicle is lowered due to a reduction in inertia and the vehicle rolling resistance. The result is improved fuel economy.

3D Printing And The Car Of The Future

When we hear stuff like “entrants can also propose unique methods of manufacturing,” our thoughts naturally turn to the topic of 3D printing.

In that respect, Local Motors is already one step ahead. Along with our sister site Gas2.org we’ve been taking note of the company’s collaborative, make-your-own-reality approach to cutting edge automotive technology, especially in the 3D printing category:

Cool, right? It’s also worth noting that the “local” in Local Motors refers at least in part to designing cars to fit particular environments, as opposed to the traditional one-size-fits-all approach.

We’re also intrigued by the potential carbon footprint savings involved in another aspect of the local concept, that being localized, microsized manufacturing centers.

In conventional manufacturing, smaller, low volume shops carry a lot of bottom line baggage, but the emergence of 3-D printing could enable a new manufacturing model that brings competitiveness down to the neighborhood scale.

That’s quite a difference from the “gigafactory” model envisioned by Tesla Motors, but we’re thinking that in the personal mobility world of the future, there’ll be room enough for both.

Oh wait, we almost forgot! You still have almost 60 days to submit your proposal to the LITECAR Challenge, and if you need some inspiration you can find a collection of the earlybird submissions at Local Motors.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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