It was 1981 when the Chrysler Corporation introduced the K platform to American car buyers. Known affectionately as K cars, the affordable sedans and wagons Chrysler began selling to consumers already wary of American cars started a movement with effects we still see today. And now in 2019, automotive manufacturing is starting to look a lot like the 1980s again.
The push today is to build cars that are lighter and stronger. Yet strength and reduced weight are not the end in and of themselves. Rather, they are requirements for building the next generation of hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs). Just like with the K car, today’s need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is playing a crucial role in new car design.
An Epic Oil Crisis
In the years prior to the release of the first K car, Chrysler was already working on a complete redesign of its fleet. They were no different than America’s other carmakers in their dependence on big, heavy, gas guzzling cars built as much for looks as transportation. But an epic oil crisis that hit during the Carter administration forced the company to be more aggressive.
Chrysler had another motivation as well: the threat of bankruptcy. After years of producing inferior quality cars undergirded by equally poor management, Chrysler was on the brink of going under when they brought in Lee Iacocca as CEO in 1978. Iacocca knew that restoring the company’s reputation rested on its next generation of cars planned for the 1980s.
Company engineers went to work creating the revolutionary K platform that went on to not only save Chrysler, but also turn it into a world leader in producing safe, fuel-efficient, and reliable cars. What Chrysler developed in the 1980s still influences auto design today.
Modern EVs and Hybrids
The world survived the late 1970s oil crisis with very few long-lasting consequences. But a decade ago, a new global focus on the potential of climate change began changing the way the public perceives fossil fuels. Those early perceptions have given way to a well-defined strategy to eventually eliminate cars with internal combustion engines.
At the forefront of that strategy today are hybrids and EVs. Though both have been in development for quite some time, they have stagnated due to one persistent issue: weight. We do not yet possess the technology to overcome vehicle weight well enough to make EVs competitive with internal combustion vehicles. And until we solve the weight problem, fossil fuels will continue to power our driving habits.
This is where composite materials like carbon fiber enter the equation. Rock West Composites, a Utah company that specializes in glass and carbon fiber parts, explains that the automotive industry wants to invest more in carbon fiber. They are only being held back by the expense.
The Future of EVs
Industry experts seem to think that carbon fiber is the future of the EV market. It is just a matter of time before carbon fiber technology is cost-effective enough to completely take over for steel and aluminum. This has engineers working on a variety of innovations, not the least of which is building a carbon fiber car body that also acts as the battery.
It was the oil crisis of the 1970s that dominated car design in the 80s. Today, we are not facing an oil crisis. But our desire to eliminate internal combustion engines is driving automotive manufacturers to do some of the same things they were doing 30 years ago. Car manufacturing is beginning to look a lot like the 1980s.