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Interview with Gael Lavaud on its innovative chassis

5 Nov 2018

Based in Bordeaux in France’s Gironde region, Gazelle Tech makes ultra-lightweight vehicles made of composite materials. The cornerstone of this innovation is the automotive chassis technology based on Aerocell composite materials, which makes it possible to cut the energy consumption of the vehicles in half and also to assemble the vehicles locally. CEO & Founder Gael Lavaud gives us an overview of this experience.

Gael Lavaud, CEO & Founder of Gazelle Tech, gives us an overview of his experience in automotive chassis technology

JEC Composites Magazine: Can you give us a brief rundown on your career and your involvement in Gazelle Tech?
Gael Lavaud: I’ve been fascinated by mechanics since I was a child, and when I was sixteen, I was lucky enough to build a replica of the Lotus Seven sports car with my father. I continued my university education with an engineering degree from the Ecole Centrale de Lyon, and then a PhD in in partnership with Renault. The subject of my thesis was optimizing the weight of vehicles and their crash performance.
Based on the effectiveness of these optimization tools, Renault hired me for its Research Department to apply them to Renault and Renault F1 engines. That enabled me to acquire training in vehicle design and modern methods in computer-aided design.
I subsequently joined Goupil Industrie (then the leading European manufacturer of electric utility vehicles) to develop the first French hybrid motor, and then as the head of the vehicle project. There, I learned how to do a lot with limited means and with very short deadlines. In 2014, I decided to leave Goupil Industrie in order to create Gazelle Tech.

Gazelle Tech can now propose a composite chassis that is hardly more expensive than a steelone, but which weighs only half as much.

Can you describe your innovation? What observation led to it? 
Gael Lavaud: Cars are now everywhere, mainly due to their flexibility of use compared with public transportation, to the extent that they account for 20% of global energy consumption and 50% of urban pollution. And that isn’t the end of it, because the global fleet of cars is predicted to increase twofold over the next 20 years, mostly in emerging countries.

This observation raises two important questions:
> Given the dwindling sources of energy, how will we be able to move around as freely in the future?  
> Given that the current production capacities are located mostly in developed countries even as the markets are shifting to the emerging countries, how will we manage to produce these vehicles in weakly industrialized countries? 

The original idea for Gazelle Tech is based on a simple fact: 75% of a vehicle’s consumption is linked to its weight. These days, we usually drive around alone (about 80 kilograms) in a very heavy vehicle (the weight of the average vehicle is 1250 kg). To simplify: the energy that we consume in our vehicles serves primarily to move the vehicle, not its passenger. We need to go back to the low weight of earlier vehicles e (a 2CV weighed 550 kg in 1949), while preserving the comfort and safety of modern vehicles. So we chose to develop an all-composite chassis in order to make vehicles that are twice as lightweight.
Composite materials also allow a high degree of functional integration. So we cut down the number of automotive chassis components from 300 to only 10 – which, furthermore, can be assembled in only one hour without the need for specific tools. Since the rest of the assembly of a vehicle is basically manual, these vehicles can be assembled locally in mini-factories made of fitted-out shipping containers. So it is possible to set up assembly units very fast and at lower cost.

What are the characteristics and advantages of the composite materials that are used?
Gael Lavaud: The main limitation to using a viable composite solution in the automotive world is the price. So first, we decided to use only materials that cost around €5/kg. Glass fibre was the only fibre that met this requirement, and carbon was way too expensive. By integrating functions, we were also able to drastically reduce the number of parts, and therefore the production investment. Moreover, we have demonstrated that our chassis technology helps absorb five times more energy per kilogram than steel, providing excellent safety.
The current development of thermoplastic materials opens the way for entirely recyclable solutions that also mesh with the technical expectations.

The final prototype for the first Gazelle Tech vehicle, a four-meter-long urban SUV

Can you tell us more about the Aerocell chassis design that is a core component of your project?
Gael Lavaud: Yes, the only innovation in our vehicles is based on its chassis made of composite materials. All the other components have been developed from existing vehicles.
To make the most of the composite materials, you have to adapt to the specific features of the material, and not just try to reproduce what is currently done with steel. The current architecture of vehicles  is optimized for the use of steel, for which the constraints are very different from those that apply to composite materials. Thanks to this different approach, we have been able to stand out from the solutions that are currently developed by our competitors, both on price and for the performance achieved. We can now propose a composite chassis that is hardly more expensive than a steel one, but which weighs only half as much.

What are the main advantages of this approach?
Gael Lavaud: The main advantages of our vehicles are their low consumption and the potential for local production.
Lowering the weight of the vehicle helps to lower consumption, whatever the vehicle’s type of motorization (petrol, electric, hybrid). This technology is still useful even in a future with self-driving vehicles, since they still will have to consume less energy.
So our vehicles offer a utilization cost that is especially competitive, as you can either buy an electric vehicle that is less expensive (same range with a smaller battery) or save up to €2,000 per year with the petrol version.
But in our opinion, what is most important is that thanks to our production mini-factories, it is possible to relocate production, which makes it possible to create jobs where the vehicles are used and to develop a truly sustainable mobility. Our siting model based on a manufacturing franchise is also  in line with our responsible approach, since that is how we share the added value of our products with our partners.

In a highly competitive automotive market, how is your solution positioned? What is your main target?
Gael Lavaud:
Our vehicles have competitive advantages in terms of lower utilization costs and environmental impact. So of course, to begin with, it addresses professionals who are more aware of these aspects. However, the point of our model isn’t to sell vehicles directly, but rather to sell turnkey vehicle factories. As such, our local partners in charge of assembling, selling and maintenancing these vehicles take care of the marketing.

What are your production and marketing prospects?
Gael Lavaud: We’ve just presented the final prototype for our first vehicle, a four-meter-long urban SUV. It has a record habitability record in a very compact format. The petrol version consumes 3 litres/100 km and the electric version consumes 70Wh/km. This prototype will receive approval within a year, and we already have a number of proposed siting projects in Africa and Asia with local partners.

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» Publication Date: 05/11/2018

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