DETROIT - The auto industry's design teams are taking note of plastics.
While metal still rules the road in production vehicles, designers' concept cars also look to carbon fiber, aramid fiber and a range of composite technology for body panels and structural components.
On the inside, there are thermoplastic elastomers and urethane to provide a ``soft touch'' feel while plastic-laminated glass provides a tinted view of the world.
Most of the vehicles rolled out Jan. 6-8 during previews for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit never will make it into production - or if they do, they will come with a mixture of new and familiar materials. But the design programs are influencing the way carmakers look at what they can do, and the dream machines provide an introduction to new products.
``A lot of times the stylists want something different and the engineers tell them that it's impossible,'' said Thomas Laboda, automotive market development manager for films at Solutia Inc. of St. Louis.
Laboda's team worked extensively with designers during the past few months to introduce them to Vanceva Color, a new brand of automotive glass carrying an inner layer of polyvinyl butyral specially designed to provide a tinted polymer palette to the industry.
``They were amazed with what we could show them, because when we first came in, they assumed they had to use just straight automotive glass,'' Laboda said.
Solutia's work paid off when General Motors Corp.'s design czar, North American Chairman Robert Lutz, drove onto the auto show stage Jan. 6 in a concept sports car called the Pontiac Solstice with laminated glass featuring a Vanceva tint to match the paint.
All told, Vanceva made it onto four concept vehicles that debuted in Detroit: Ford Motor Co.'s F-350 Tonka truck, Ford's GT40 performance car, GM's Bel Air sedan and the Solstice.
The GT40 also represents a composites study by Ford, building the lightweight body over an aluminum frame. The car is intended to echo Ford's race-car lineup of the late 1960s and is part of the company's ``Living Legends'' design lineup that includes the new Thunderbird, a composite-body car that went into production last year, as well as concept vehicles.
GM turned to carbon fiber and Kevlar aramid fiber for the body and chassis on its Cadillac Cien two-seat concept vehicle, while carbon fiber also goes onto the body of DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep Willys 2 design.
The Chrysler unit has turned out a handful of carbon-fiber concepts during the past two years as part of a study that could turn out plastic-body production vehicles in the future. If the Willys were to make it to production, the company aims to produce a thermoplastic injection molded body on an aluminum frame, a manufacturing change that could cut costs and weight by 50 percent compared with traditional sheet metal.
The biggest holdup in bringing the molding technology into production remains finding an affordable, aesthetically attractive replacement for painting, according to Tom Moore, vice president for Liberty and technical affairs engineering technologies, the DaimlerChrysler research group based in Rochester Hills, Mich.
Researchers now are studying in-mold decorating using an extruded film finish.
``Like all research, it takes time,'' he said.
Some concepts do make it to production. Solutia's Vanceva Color PVB layer is making its first appearance on a street vehicle with the Porsche 911 Targa, which made its debut in Detroit. The sports car has a retractable roof that uses a gray-green Vanceva blend both for aesthetics and safety, Laboda noted.
Vanceva Color is slated to make its way into two other cars later this year.
The best concepts, Lutz noted, consider not just what might appear in dreams, but what actually could make it to the streets.
``We want to tease the future, but never leave the realm of the understandable now,'' he said.