For Weight Conscious Carmakers: The Steel Diet

Carmakers trying to cut weight and boost fuel efficiency have increasingly turned to aluminum and plastics. Now, the steel industry is fighting back. A study co-sponsored by the American Iron & Steel Institute (AISI) and Ford Motor Co. has found a way, using steel, to shave at least 140 pounds from a Ford Taurus without any loss of structural rigidity--the feeling of stiffness and stability in a car--or crashworthiness. Auto makers are accustomed to paying at least $1 per pound of weight saved, because lighter materials tend to be more expensive. But the new method actually saves $40, in part because it eliminates as many as 50 parts from a car body.

The trick is holistic design and engineering. Typically, car engineers try to save a pound here and there from individual parts, then put the weight back if rigidity suffers. The study, conducted by Porsche Engineering Services Inc. in Troy, Mich., a unit of Germany's Porsche, showed that using advanced computer techniques to find potential weight savings throughout the body worked better than trial and error. The AISI plans to work with Porsche to spread these methods to American auto makers.