Plastics putting the buzz in electric cars

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Electric cars may not have gotten the same buzz at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year as they have in the past, but that doesn't mean they've disappeared. In fact both suppliers and industry leaders see only growth ahead.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Carlos Ghosn said in a video news release that he expects sales to increase, although the pace of that increase will depend on how soon an electrical charging station network comes on line, so buyers can easily drive from place to place without worrying about running out of juice.

Nissan assembles its all-electric Leaf both in Japan and in Smyrna, Tenn., where it builds its own lithium-ion battery packs.

While Tesla Motors Inc.'s Model S sedan may have an aluminum body, it still relies on plastics suppliers for key parts. Last year, it named BASF AG as a key supplier for its work helping the carmaker find a way to paint the plastic bumpers on the "pearl white" color of the sedan.

The resin supplier has a team devoted to working with Tesla — which assembles cars in Fremont, Calif. — to consider lightweight requirements for current and future production, said Calvin Nichols, automotive market segment manager for BASF's engineering plastics group.

While German automaker BMW AG has talked a lot about the use of carbon fiber in its new i3 electric car, it also uses other thermoplastics in key parts, such as the polycarbonate/ABS from Bayer MaterialScience LLC used in high gloss exterior trim, said Jose Chirino, industrial marketing manager for Bayer.

Trim parts like the PC/ABS used by BMW also is a likely place to house sensors and radar systems as the auto industry looks to make a self-driving — or autonomous — car.

Ghosn said Nissan wants to have an autonomous car on the market by 2020, and expects other automakers are targeting the same time frame for their self-driving cars.