The plastics industry is weighing in on fuel economy.
With automakers, politicians, conservationists and consumers alike paying increased attention to the rate at which vehicles consume gasoline, the American Plastics Council and individual companies are stepping forward to preach the fuel-efficiency gospel of plastics.
``There's no doubt that there's a concept in America that bigger is better,'' said Donald W. Little, chairman of APC's automotive group and director of quality and management systems for Dow Automotive, the Troy, Mich.-based branch of Dow Chemical Co.
``There's no doubt that there's a need for education, and we can continue to show that we can make lighter systems and at less cost.''
So as automakers, suppliers and industry trendsetters gather for the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich., set for Aug. 6-10, APC will meet them head on with a campaign that includes precise examples of fuel savings during the life of a vehicle fleet.
``Our scope is to provide solutions to the auto manufacturers to help them meet their goals,'' said Bruce Cundiff, director of APC's Automotive Learning Center in Troy. ``What better place is there to raise awareness?''
The effort comes even as lawmakers and researchers in Washington are examining the U.S. fuel-use standard every automaker must follow, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy system, or CAFE.
The National Academy of Science's National Research Council released a report July 30 saying the United States easily could improve automotive fuel consumption by adopting and adapting new technology.
Although members of the CAFE commission disagree on the safety aspects of making small cars lighter, they all agree that automakers can improve overall safety by decreasing the mass of large autos, such as sport utility vehicles and minivans.
``If we reduce the disparity in the sizes of the cars, then you could even have a favorable effect in terms of safety,'' said Chairman Paul R. Portney.
The committee has no authority to change the standards, and refused to provide specific recommendations. Congress has taken no action on the report, although the House of Representatives already defeated one unrelated amendment Aug. 1 to improve the fuel use of light trucks.
Congress asked the group to look into CAFE early this year and examine potential changes. The fuel-use program began in the late 1970s in response to the oil embargo and was designed to reduce U.S. reliance on overseas oil.
The program sets a minimum standard for corporate fuel economy, dividing it between passenger cars and light trucks. Cars now must meet 27.5 miles per gallon and trucks 20.7 mpg. Those requirements have not changed for years, but the U.S. buying pattern has.
Consumers are turning increasingly to minivans and sport utility vehicles and using them in the same way they did sedans and station wagons less than a generation ago. Those vans and SUVs, though, are classified as light trucks, not passenger cars, even though they're rarely used for anything but day-to-day travel.
The report claims carmakers could improve both safety and fuel economy by reducing the weight of some of those so-called trucks. Some examples are the 5,750-pound GM TrailBlazer, the 5,500-pound Ford Windstar minivan, the 8,800-pound DaimlerChrysler Dodge Ram four-door pickup and the largest SUVs - Ford's 9,000-pound Excursion and GM's Hummer, coming in at more than 10,000 pounds.
Trimming some of that fat would play right into the plastics industry theme, Little said.
In Traverse City, APC will provide examples of 16 different plastic systems that can reduce weight, reduce cost and improve fuel performance.
The options range from a fan and shroud reservoir that is 1.1 pounds lighter than metal, to a composite pickup box that offers 50 pounds of savings per vehicle and can rack up 9.9 million gallons in fuel savings for the fleet of trucks over their life span.
``This has been one of our major themes from the get-go,'' Little said. ``All along, we've known that plastics has a lightweight attraction for fuel use.''
APC is not the only group pushing to raise the auto industry's awareness.
* The Automotive Composites Alliance is made up of 24 molders, material suppliers and toolmakers promoting plastics' use.
* Owens Corning of Toledo, Ohio, has created an automotive arm and teamed with Bayer Corp. in an alliance to develop advanced polyurethane and glass-fiber composite technologies for automakers and Tier 1 suppliers.
* Earlier this year, 11 companies, - including DuPont and Solutia Inc. - joined forces to create the Enhanced Protective Glass Automotive Association and lobby for automakers to use plastic-coated safety window systems throughout the vehicle.
Even if the federal government backs a plan to improve fuel use by light trucks, the plastics industry does not expect a smooth road. Other materials providers are following the same discussions and preparing their own strategies.
Both the aluminum and steel industries will have representatives on hand in Traverse City, ready to lobby manufacturers.
``The CAFE thing is going to get really intense,'' said Richard Klimisch, vice president of the Aluminum Association and head of its Detroit-based auto and light- truck unit. ``We welcome all the competition.''
While steel producers can point to years of the metal's use in the industry, Klimisch will lead discussions on aluminum's light weight, focusing on its ease of recyclability compared with plastics.
Meanwhile, weight issues as they relate to safety are likely to prompt even more discussions in the future. The CAFE committee already has called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do more research into whether lighter vehicles lead to more fatalities.
Two members of the group, David L. Greene and Maryann Keller, disagreed with the other 11 on the committee that lighter weight leads to greater safety concerns. In a dissent issued with the report, they argued that studies so far have been inconclusive, because they failed to take other circumstances into account.
Lighter cars tend to be driven by younger, inexperienced drivers, they wrote, and they are more likely to be used in urban driving, which is more prone to see collisions because of the higher number of vehicles on the streets.
Lighter cars that use plastics extensively, such as General Motors Corp.'s Saturn vehicles, can and do have better safety records than larger vehicles, APC's Cundiff maintained.
``It's not necessarily the weight of the car,'' he said. ``It's how you design it to handle energy management.''
The key, he said, is not merely substituting plastics for heavier metals, but designing modules specifically for resins and knowing in advance what benefits they offer and how to alter the overall system to take advantage of them.
Upcoming potential auto trends, such as polycarbonate windows and plastic roof systems, show promise of potentially reducing weight on the top half of cars, lowering the center of gravity and reducing the risk of rollover crashes.
All of those issues will be leading topics for the auto industry both at the annual conference and year-round, said Michael Fisher, APC technology director.
``Part of this really comes into a branding effort for the plastics industry,'' Fisher said. ``We're all coming together to market the plastics brand.''