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Safety, lightweighting drive auto electrical innovation and part consolidation

By: Kerri Jansen

May 22, 2014

TROY, MICH. — Electrical innovation and consolidation of parts will be necessary to reconcile lightweighting efforts with increased consumer demand for safety features and other electronics, industry experts say.

Though today the auto industry is immersed in lightweighting efforts, historically, the trend has been the opposite, said Ankil Shah, manager of materials engineering and development at the technical center of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc., during a keynote address at the Society of Plastics Engineers’ AutoEpcon on May 6.

As an example, he presented the Toyota Corolla, which added 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of mass between 1983 and 2003, an increase he attributed to customer demand for more features and a larger vehicle.

And as cars pack on the pounds in the form of backup cameras, automatic braking systems, entertainment options and more, another issue will present itself.

“We’re running out of power,” said Eric Fedewa, director of global powertrain and components forecasting at IHS Automotive, at the conference.

“Everybody likes their heated seats, they like all of the infotainment systems they have, and power consumption on the vehicle is rising dramatically,” Fedewa said. “Electrical innovation of the vehicle is going to become of paramount importance in order to drive all the content that we have on the vehicles.”

Fedewa said he foresees a shift to dual voltage architectures in vehicles — two batteries working in tandem — to handle the increased electrical load. But finding a way to power more electronics isn’t the only challenge.

“We’re really at the point where the legislation is going to continue to force you to reduce [carbon dioxide] or increase the miles per gallon. At some point you reach a technological limitation where you really need to either have a technology breakthrough, or you simply have to take the weight out of the vehicle,” he said. “So material substitution will be, once we get beyond all the consumer and infotainment content on the vehicle, next generation we need to really look at weight reduction and materials substitution.”

While large parts may be the obvious target for lightweighting, small parts will have to be redesigned, too, he said. And multi-component parts may be simplified.

“Some people talk about these cars being just as functional from an electronics standpoint as their home, … But that means electronics in the car, new safety features and new capability there, but absolutely parts consolidation — simplifying that design — is a big part of what we’re being asked to do,” Patrick Lindner, president of the performance polymers division at DuPont Co., told Plastics News May 8.

DuPont manufactures materials used in printed circuit boards that eliminate the need for additional wires, cutting bulk and weight. The company is also working to develop lighter-weight solenoids — components that function as a switch for electrical current. 

“[We’ve] started to redesign some of those solenoids such that you can surround the bobbin and other parts with polymers that we make. And so even down at that level we’re trying to figure out how to take weight out, and those are pretty small parts,” Lindner said. “The other issue around those is when you take the weight out, you can actually make them smaller, which allows you to get more real estate in the car … to fit things in.”

Moving forward, it’s essential that lightweighting efforts can be coordinated with new safety features and other add-ons, he said.

“That type of innovation, I think, goes hand-in-hand with the work that’s happening around safety as cars become lighter and more efficient, because they have to work together,” Lindner said. “You first of all want to avoid the collision, and then second of all, if you do have to have one, you want to be safe and protected in it. … and I think then one without the other, is going to lead to sub-optimized experience and safety experience for the consumer.”