It's time for the plastics industry to stop congratulating itself for all the gains it has made in cars and trucks and start thinking about its future.
Or else, before the decade is over, that back-patting happy talk could be replaced by wistful remembrances of days past, as other materials start taking back the reins and regaining market share. A united industrywide effort — starting immediately — is needed before the parade passes by.
By now, the news should have peppered each and every U.S. boardroom: In early December, carmakers' talks in Kyoto, Japan, focused on how to cage deadly greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles; a new hybrid vehicle, part electric- and part gas-driven, from Toyota Motor Corp.;and the development of emissions-cutting fuel cells.
That doesn't have anything to do with plastics, right? That's all engine stuff, isn't it?
I've heard companies say just that. In truth, the push toward emissions-friendly vehicles has everything to do with plastics and the industry's place with automakers.
That's because lighter-weight vehicles hold the key to cutting those nasty emissions. The fact is, every 10 percent reduction in a vehicle's weight equates to a 6 percent decline in its emissions.
And don't think the carmakers don't know it. Those figures come from the Southfield, Mich.-based U.S. Council for Automotive Research, a group spearheading developing of future vehicles. The group also is funded by the Big Three carmakers, which fold USCAR's research into their future models.
It's alarming, but plastics has taken second-class citizenship in USCAR's vehicle development. And to think that the plastics industry prides itself on offering lightweight parts.
Yet, USCAR and Big Three officials have said material costs for composites must come down before they can be used for most structural applications. They also say that processing of larger parts is too slow compared with casting methods.
So instead, the industry has looked to aluminum, magnesium and ultralight steel for its future. It's no accident that major companies in those industries have also thrown major dollars at USCAR programs.
Aluminum companies have helped fund the U.S. Automotive Materials Partnership at USCAR, and the steel industry has spent $22 million for its UltraLight Steel Auto Body project.
So far, no similar joint effort can be found from plastics firms or associations to develop affordable, lightweight vehicles. Even USCAR's composites group, which is developing plastic pickup truck boxes, is funded by the Big Three and not the plastics industry.
In March, I attended a news conference held by Ford Motor Co. to announce its future lightweight vehicle. I was expecting to see the use of composites or possibly even thermoplastic parts. What I saw was a car with an aluminum body and frame.
So I asked several Ford officials why they didn't go with plastics. They explained how costly and slow it was to make plastic structural parts.
But before I received my answer, I had to wait for them to finish laughing at my question.