EAST LIBERTY, OHIO — THWACK!
A battering ram smacks a truck window, a sound like a sledgehammer striking pavement. The window buckles and then rips in a jagged semicircle. Clouds of dust carry off microscopic shards of glass. Video cameras capture the event for slow-motion playback.
The test is over in seconds. The questions begin immediately.
``Why would it tear like that?'' asks research engineer J. Stephen Duffy while staring at the remains of the shattered glass and ripped plastic. ``It never did that before.''
At the East Liberty test center operated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the questions will continue for at least eight months. Sometime next spring, lab officials plan to make a recommendation on the crashworthiness of plastic-based car and truck windows. Then, it is up to a committee of senior management at the Washington-based agency to decide how well the prototype windows reflect their safety concerns. Those findings, and any subsequent rule making by NHTSA, will either speed or slow future progress of plastic windows.
A lot is riding on test results.
Although the technology is not new, the investment in windows — whether polycarbonate or the laminated type fusing glass and plastic resin such as polyvinyl butyral — has become big business for plastics suppliers:
In June, GE Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass., and Leverkusen, Germany-based Bayer AG, the two largest PC makers, announced an unprecedented, $40 million joint venture to develop PC windows. The group, which will start in September from rented offices, will set up a plant in the Detroit area sometime in 1998.
Said GE Plastics President Gary Rogers after the announcement was made: ``How big an opportunity is it? It's as big as the number of side windows on every car and truck made.''
In 1996, about 55 million cars and trucks were produced worldwide, virtually none with side windows using plastic. Rogers estimated the potential market for PC windows at $5 billion to $6 billion.
Stiff competition is coming from another flank. Several leading glass manufacturers and Troy, Mich.-based DuPont Automotive, a maker of polyvinyl butyral, want to install bi- or trilaminated side windows. Bilaminated windows fuse a sheet of outer glass with inner plastic, while trilaminates sandwich a plastic film between two outer glass layers.
The Big Three, while keeping relatively mum on the subject, are said to be evaluating prototypes of both PC and laminated windows. Some suppliers whisper that actual platforms are not far off.
Douglas Nutter, who will head the new Bayer-GE glazing alliance, expects to see fixed side PC windows on North American vehicles within five years and movable side windows inside a decade.
But NHTSA and Big Three carmakers have yet to weigh in with their opinion. For one thing, suppliers still have to show automakers that plastic window systems can equal the cost of installing tempered glass. In lieu of that, safety issues could help sell the windows, Nutter said.
Unlike glass, plastic neither shatters on impact, eliminating the potential for vehicle ejections, nor leaves knife-edged shards that can lacerate occupants.
``We think there are major safety advantages,'' said Nutter, GE Plastics' global glazing business director. ``The burden of proof is in our court to get the industry's confidence. No one is more motivated to do that than us.''
But the alliance also has its work cut out. At NHTSA's Vehicle Research & Test Center, a team involving Donald Willke and Duffy has been given a mandate to help determine whether plastic windows are really safer than glass.
The case is far from decided.
``Sure, plastic doesn't break like glass and cause ejections,'' said Willke, chief of NHTSA's defects analysis and crashworthiness division. ``But our concern is that the windows are too stiff. The occupant could possibly receive worse head or neck injuries by being retained in the vehicle instead of being ejected.''
The agency was mandated by Congress in 1993 to investigate reducing the estimated 9,000 U.S. fatalities per year from vehicle ejections. This fiscal year, the center will spend about $125,000 in crash research, Willke said.
Starting in mid-June, the center stepped up its impact tests, starting with bilaminated windows. After that, trilaminated and PC windows will undergo similar tests at the 48,000-square-foot facility, located at the Transportation Research Center Inc., a private, not-for-profit test lab that is aiding NHTSA's efforts.
The windows are encapsulated into the driver-side doors of General Motors Corp.'s C/K series pickup trucks. They first undergo guided head impacter tests involving a 40-pound metal battering ram, called an impacter, outfitted with a rubberized crash dummy's head.
The impacter, attached to the front seat, is propelled by compressed gas at 10-15 miles per hour into the window. The results are measured by sensors that analyze time of impact and resulting devastation.
The center also will perform free-motion head form tests that smash a 10-pound dummy's head against the window. The work also includes trying out different encapsulation systems to enhance occupant safety.
A major challenge will be developing pass-fail criteria for the tests, Willke said. ``We have a lot of work ahead,'' he said. ``But we absolutely plan to get our recommendations to Washington by the spring.''
Ostensibly, NHTSA officials will then evaluate whether to continue funding the plastic window research in Ohio. However, if the results provide powerful evidence on the safety of either laminated or PC windows, proposed rule-making changes could occur, Willke said.
That would provide a major marketing boost to one of the plastic-window camps. For glazing, NHTSA now allows PC windows only on areas not affecting visibility, such as small side windows behind the rearmost passenger or roof applications.
Laminated side windows have broader latitude from NHTSA. However, current standards are narrowly worded and could be revised, said Stephen Mirshak, automotive marketing manager for advanced glazing products with DuPont Automotive.
``From a vehicle standpoint, the [laminated] material meets all existing regulations and can be applied at will,'' Mirshak said. ``But we want to see what NHTSA has to say before selling the windows to customers.''
Suppliers are doing their best to help NHTSA's research. Window manufacturer Pilkington Libbey Owens Ford in Toledo, Ohio, is providing both laminated and PC windows to the Ohio test facility after winning a bid for the nonpaid contract a year ago. LOF also makes laminated windows.
``In my opinion, when NHTSA completes its tests, it is not going to say a carmaker must use laminated or polycarbonate windows,'' said Richard Sahler, director of global marketing for LOF. ``Instead, [the agency] will probably try to define how they want the product to perform under certain conditions. That will steer vehicle manufacturers in one direction.''
GE Plastics also is playing a role. The company, which makes Lexan PC for glazing, is performing its own crash tests with MGA Research Inc. in Madison Heights, Mich. The tests on PC windows include some of the same ones conducted by NHTSA, as well as full vehicle rollovers and crashes. The GE lab also will drop a vehicle half a foot in temperatures of minus 20° F in a test called an Alaskan inverted car drop.
GE Plastics will share data with NHTSA before the group makes its recommendation, said Michael Sykes, automotive glazing engineering manager at GE Plastics. The resin supplier also is working with the NHTSA lab to confirm its results.
The supplier, which is spending $500,000 for the tests, is not conducting them as a goodwill effort, Sykes said.
``Long term, the object of the tests is to show that vehicles are safe enough [with PC windows] to expand the allowable use of it,'' said Sykes, who works from the company's Southfield, Mich., offices. ``The current regulations are a market impediment until a [rule] expansion takes place.''
While plastics and glass suppliers are helping NHTSA, they also are battling each other. Both laminated glass and PC windows are direct competitors fighting for a share of the tempered-glass market.
The brewing conflict features some large resin and product producers. In one corner are the PC proponents, such as GE Plastics, Bayer and window systems suppliers, such as Magna International Inc. of Markham, Ontario, and Donnelly Corp. in Holland, Mich.
They acknowledge that work remains, especially to come up with a hard-coat material that resists abrasions and maintains long-term weatherability. They also maintain that PC windows are less costly than bonding pieces of glass with laminated material, weigh less and offer styling flexibility.
``Laminating aggravates the encapsulation process and drives up the costs,'' Sykes said. ``And you still have glass that can shatter and cut you.''
The view from the other side also can be convincing. Trilaminated plastic has been used on front windows for more than 40 years. Several 1998 European models, including the 740il and 750il luxury models from BMW AG and the Merea sedans from Fiat SpA, now use laminated plastic on side windows.
Mirshak at DuPont said laminated materials don't face the same abrasion challenges as do PC windows and already have been proved to work.
``We believe [PC glazing] has many technical issues to face,'' Mirshak said. ``I would be impressed if the companies working on this overcame them. We're not in fear of what they're trying to do.''
Glass manufacturers PPG Industries Inc. of Pittsburgh and Guardian Automotive of Auburn Hills, Mich., make laminated windows for front windshields. Officials at both companies did not discount switching to PC glazing, if that is what the future foretold.
``We acknowledge that a great deal of work needs to be done [with PC glazing],'' said Jack Sights, president of the automotive products group for Guardian Automotive, a unit of Guardian Industries Corp. ``But we're arguably the only glass manufacturer that can also mold plastic. There's a lot of money to be made if [PC] glazing ever gets off the ground.''