Written by Mary Fraser, BASF, ACC, Plastics Division Automotive Team and originally published on October 1st, 2009 in Gas 2.0.
Photo Credit:BMW Vision EfficientDynamics
Despite all of the challenges facing the automotive industry today, this is a time of great innovation.
Electric vehicles are just months away from entering the U.S. market and evolving engine technology is consistently improving fuel efficiency. Auto manufacturers are taking big steps to reduce emissions and hybrid cars are becoming mainstream. While powertrain technology has significantly improved fuel efficiency in recent history, the materials used in production of automobiles are increasingly playing a key role in making vehicles more sustainable. One group of materials, in particular, that is opening new doors to auto design and fuel economy is plastics.
Plastics are helping to revolutionize the automobile as we know it. “Lightweighting” has become the watchword in the automotive industry as manufacturers strive to increase gas mileage by reducing the weight of vehicles. Innovations in plastics have given auto manufacturers the opportunity to build lighter weight cars without compromising safety. Light and strong reinforced plastic vehicle parts are replacing their traditional metal counterparts. These strong, energy absorbing plastics are being adopted to increase the resilience of passenger cars in a crash, while also reducing the weight of the vehicle to improve fuel efficiency.
For every 10 percent reduction in weight of the total vehicle, fuel economy improves by 5-7 percent and for every kilogram of vehicle weight reduction, there is a potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 kilograms over the vehicle’s operating life. Plastics are making these weight reductions and emission savings possible. With more than 600 million vehicles on global roads, the saved vehicle CO2 emissions really add up. Through the recent “Cash for Clunkers” program, 997,824 vehicles were traded in for more fuel efficient models in the month of July 2009 alone. You can bet that each of those new replacement vehicles is benefiting from plastics innovations that are helping improve fuel efficiency. As plastics technology advances, manufacturers will be able to make vehicles even lighter, which can be expected to result in even more fuel efficient vehicles.
Because plastics are lightweight and versatile, they make up approximately 50 percent of the material volume of new cars. This includes safety features like seat belts, air bags and padded dashboards, as well as functional components such as seats, bumpers, electronics and consoles. Many new parts for instance, under the hood casings, knee bolsters, and even some headlamp reflectors have been created from recycled plastics, with the hope that more recycled material will be a part of future cars, closing the loop. Innovations in plastic materials have also enabled vehicle designers to increase the quality, comfort and attractiveness of automobile interiors.
Plastic materials are used to create countless products we use in our everyday lives, especially within the automotive industry. Whether manufacturers are addressing fuel economy, safety, style or functionality, the common theme is that plastics are helping make all of these efforts possible.