Don't Miss This Coming Trend

One surefire way to make outsized returns as an investor is to identify key business trends before they become widely recognized. With that in mind, here is one trend you likely haven't heard about:

The global auto industry is suffering from an obesity epidemic. And if it is going to meet future regulations, cars and light trucks need to go on a serious diet starting -- now.

With the announcement of new 54.5 mpg fuel economy standards, all of the attention has been focused on the powertrain, e.g., how to make engines more efficient. However that's only one side of the coin. So while Ford (NYS: F) and Toyota (NYS: TM) team up to build hybrid engines specifically for trucks and SUVs, Tesla (NAS: TSLA) continues to push its electrified vision as the future of the industry, and investors look for new breakthrough technology from companies like A123 (NAS: AONE) , no one is talking about the other side of the coin. That removing weight from our vehicles is one of the best ways to increase efficiency.

Because of additional safety standards and the desire for increasingly high-tech equipment, the average vehicle weight has steadily crept north, breaking the two-ton mark last decade for the first time since the 1970s.

You thought there was no trade-off surrounding your family with airbags in an all-wheel drive, self-parking, mobile home theater? Well, shocker, there is. All that really cool stuff weighs something. And since everyone wants to be increasingly coddled during commutes, ripping the tech out isn't an option. Engineers need to turn to the rest of the vehicle.

According to new report by Frost & Sullivan, the market for lightweight auto materials is set to more than double, reaching $95 billion by 2017. This means replacing low grade steel with advanced high strength steel, or aluminum. These expensive metals will likely add cost for consumers, but it is great news for steel suppliers like U.S. Steel (NYS: X) , along with aluminum makers Alcoa (NYS: AA) and Rio Tinto (NYS: RIO) . Materials switching will also be good for plastics makers like DuPont (NYS: DD) as manufactures switch from heavy metals to plastics wherever possible. It's also good news for investors, since these are solid, stable, dividend-paying companies with long track records. They aren't risking it all on a cutting-edge technology that may not be widely adopted.

All the talk of next-gen engines is important. Decreasing displacement and adding turbo chargers is likely one way to go. Increased proliferation and acceptance in the U.S. of diesel technology is another. Finally, hybrid and electrification will make up an increasing percentage of vehicle fleets going forward. But every 10% reduction in weight correlates to a 6% increase in fuel economy. The auto industry can't keep offering vehicles built with the same materials they have for decades. Change is in the air, and wise investors would be smart to take advantage.

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At the time thisarticle was published David Williamsonholds no position in any company mentioned.Click hereto see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford Motor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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