DEARBORN, Mich. — Roofs made of carbon fiber. Plastic windshields. Bumpers fashioned out of aluminum foam.
What sounds like a science experiment could be your next car. While hybrids and electrics may grab the headlines, the real frontier in fuel economy is the switch to lighter materials.
Automakers have been experimenting for decades with lightweighting, as the practice is known, but the effort is gaining urgency with the adoption of tougher gas mileage standards. To meet the government's goal of nearly doubling average fuel economy to 45 mpg by 2025, cars need to lose some serious pounds.
Lighter doesn't mean less safe. Cars with new materials are acing government crash tests. About 30 percent of new vehicles already have hoods made of aluminum, which can absorb the same amount of impact as steel.
Ford gave a glimpse of the future last week with a lightweight Fusion car. The prototype, developed with the U.S. Department of Energy, is about 800 pounds lighter than a typical Fusion thanks to dozens of changes in parts and materials.
The instrument panel consists of a carbon fiber and nylon composite instead of steel. The rear window is made from the same tough but thin plastic that covers your cellphone.
Because it's lighter, the prototype can use the same small engine as Ford's subcompact Fiesta, which gets an estimated 45 mpg on the highway.
But the car won't be in dealerships any time soon. For one thing, it's prohibitively expensive. Still, prototypes are helping Ford and other companies figure out the ideal mix of materials.
"These are the technologies that will creep into vehicles in the next three to five years," said Matt Zaluzec, Ford's technical leader for materials and manufacturing research.
Some vehicles have already made a lightweight leap. Land Rover's 2013 Range Rover dropped about 700 pounds with its all-aluminum body, while the new Acura MDX shed 275 pounds through increased use of high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium.
Ford has unveiled an aluminum-body 2015 F-150 pickup, which shaves up to 700 pounds off the current version. The truck goes on sale later this year.