Using more plastics to help rev up MPG

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There’s no shortage of great ideas for saving weight in vehicles using plastics. So what’s holding the industry back? That’s a question I heard a lot last week, at the Plastics in Lightweight & Electric Vehicles conference in Livonia, Mich. Bruce Benda, Bayer MaterialScience LLC’s automotive and transportation vice president, had one of the best answers.

First, the context: Benda cited an example of a long-fiber-polyurethane underbody the company helped design for a Ford Explorer simulation. The part could have helped save a whopping 45 pounds. For an industry that’s trying to save grams, 45 pounds is massive. So why isn’t this in commercial production yet? “This industry is very firmly entrenched in existing infrastructures and technologies,” Benda said, but hastened to add he’s excited about the potential for progress.

What’s changed is that the government is now pushing automakers for rapid fuel-economy improvements. The current 25 mpg average is supposed to hit 34.1 mpg by 2016, and 54.5 mpg by 2025.

OEMs will be using a variety of strategies to meet those goals — the experts say electrification will be a big part of the equation.

But Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process development at Magna International Inc., said OEMs he talks to say their No. 1 priority is mass reduction.

Here are some more early highlights from the conference. Watch Plastics News in coming weeks for more coverage from the event:

Maurice Sessel, IAC Group senior vice president of product engineering, said future designs might eliminate the crossbeam, a metal structural part under the instrument panel that accounts for 30 percent of a car interior’s weight. Sessel added that it will take close cooperation with OEMs to bring home new technology.

Pilette highlighted Magna’s extensive use of different materials, noting Magna is materials-agnostic. But he added that while the company is looking at applications for biomaterials, it won’t step up their use until they are cost-neutral to customers.

Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, said so-called “driverless technology” is feasible now and could be commercial by 2020. That’s a trend being driven by the federal government, too — regulators want cars that won’t crash, in order to reduce fatalities to zero. There are materials implications to that push. For example, think of all the parts that have to be steel or aluminum now to protect the driver and passengers in a crash. Now imagine that the car is designed to never crash ...

Baron believes the future lightweight vehicle will be a mixed-material product — not aluminum-, steel- or plastics-intensive.

Tom Gould, North America design director for Johnson Controls Inc., says suppliers and OEMs need to collaborate to make lightweight vehicles. That means making designers part of the team, then pushing them to solve problems. “That’s what they’re trained to do,” he said. “Don’t let them off the hook.”

Jim Tobin, Magna’s chief marketing officer, said that to cut weight, suppliers need high-tech expertise to deliver affordable, green, reliable solutions. “This is where our industry shines,” he said.

Loepp is editor of  Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”