DETROIT — Heading into his senior year at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, auto design student Sean Ehlert knew what he wanted to tackle for his final project. But once he heard the American Plastics Council was sponsoring the college's senior thesis program for 2000, Ehlert nearly abandoned his plans.
"I wanted to do a luxury car to round out my portfolio, and when I heard APC was the sponsor, I just thought, `No, I can't do it,'" Ehlert said.
"Eventually, I learned about my own ignorance in not understanding plastics very well and what it could do."
At the end of the 16-week project, Ehlert unveiled his concept car, a luxury model with a PET, polyurethane and acrylic skin.
The in-color injection molded body with a satinlike finish is not supposed to imitate the glossy surface of a metal exterior, he said.
"I want plastic to look like plastic, not wood or steel," Ehlert said. "I want to celebrate plastic."
Sixteen seniors took part in the project, unveiling their clay scale model designs May 10 in a special ceremony with APC President Ron Yocum and college and industry experts who helped guide them through the process.
Their cars ranged from a $300,000 sports car slated to use PET recycled from soft drink bottles to an electric two-seat vehicle designated for use in gated communities.
Arlington, Va.-based APC's concept, Yocum said, was to expose future car designers to plastics' benefits in the industry.
"By taking an active role in educating them about the innovative properties of plastics, the American Plastics Council has, I hope, helped them to be better prepared for their role in shaping the future of automotive design," he said.
About half of all designers hired each year by North American automakers and Tier 1 suppliers are alumni of CCS, said Richard Rogers, president of the 1,000-student art and design college.
"These students will be the best-educated students we've ever had in plastics design," said Carl L. Olsen, section chair for transportation design for CCS. "How the plastics message has sunk in and how it's translated to their work is unprecedented."
For his car, Ehlert took advantage of plastic to decrease overall weight, improve performance, interior passenger space and production time and decrease pollution.
"If I was paying for a Rolls Royce, I wouldn't be very happy with the fact that a Ford Taurus could outperform my car," he said.
Greg Howell's "Plastic SuperCar" would mold PET in a honeycomb structure for added strength, have a polycarbonate rear window, add ABS matte-finished accent pieces and use polyurethane for a hinge on the gull-wing doors.
The large, sweeping form would not be possible with other materials, he said.
"Plastics gave me the fender I wanted to do that otherwise I couldn't do with this vehicle," he said.
Hirokazu Matsumoto said his inexpensive world car would take advantage of the contraction and expansion of thermoplastics to accentuate the design lines, while also using a wide variety of hues to make the car stand out.
"I didn't want it just to wear the plastic label on its sleeve," agreed John G. Opfer, whose BMW-style sports car used both injection molded PET and wound Kevlar. "People don't buy something because it's plastic or it's not plastic. They buy them because they're exciting vehicles."
The project, said Ehlert — who logged a previous internship with an iron and steel group — gave him a new palette of potential materials.
"Sometimes, as a designer, you get stale. You draw out a car because you're told to draw out a car," he said. "This has given me a great opportunity to think outside of what's typically out there."
A link to photos and information on all the CCS program's finished designs is available at www.plastics-car.com.