Saad Abouzahr has a 54-mile commute - each way - so he understands the impact of rising gasoline prices.
``I spend more money on gas than food lately, so it is very painful,'' he said.
And as senior manager of materials with DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler SRT group in Auburn Hills, Mich., he also understands the impact lighter materials can make on improved fuel economy.
But while the auto industry is looking to decrease vehicle weight, Abouzahr warned molders that decision makers will not necessarily be using composites to do that.
The auto industry is still more comfortable with metal, he said during the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Composites Conference, held Sept. 12-14 in Troy. While sheet molding compound may be able to offer automakers a 20 percent weight savings compared with steel, aluminum may step up with a 50 percent lighter alternative.
``We know how to assimilate aluminum in our assembly plants,'' Abouzahr said. ``With SMC or [reaction injection molding], that's difficult for us to assimilate.''
In addition, automakers and suppliers have a variety of other ways to improve fuel economy, noted David Mattis, director of materials and appearance with Detroit-based General Motors Corp.'s engineering center.
Even reshaping an exterior mirror to make it more aerodynamic can improve performance, he noted.
But with the price of gasoline, automakers will be listening to ways to reduce mass in the cars and trucks Americans like to drive.
It is a good time for the composites industry as a whole to step up and show what it can offer, said Richard Morrison, president of Molded Fiber Glass Cos., an Ashtabula, Ohio-based firm that created the body for the first Corvette.
``We have a very serious energy crunch, and we have to consume less,'' he said. ``We have to reduce mass.''
There may be more opportunities now for composites in replacing steel in structural components rather than body panels, Mattis said, since carmakers do not like to deal with the difficulties of painting Class A SMC or RIM parts.
Ford Motor Co. used aluminum for the body of its GT sports car, but turned to carbon fiber for the inner portion of the rear deck lid covering the engine compartment. The part is large - about 4½ feet by 6½ feet, and bigger than the hood of an Excursion sport utility vehicle, said Matthew Zaluzec, manager of materials research and advanced engineering for the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker. But the carbon-fiber system weighs only 14 pounds, half that of its metal counterpart.
Carbon fiber will not see a major commercial breakthrough in the auto industry until prices decrease and molders find a faster way to process it, but automakers and suppliers alike are researching its potential.
``There is a really strategic need for this country to reduce its mass,'' said Donald Lasell, program manager for Vermont Composites Inc. of Burlington, Vt., which makes carbon-fiber parts for the Corvette Z06. ``I've been involved in making some incredibly efficient weapons. Now we need to use that technology to make cars.''
A united approach will aid the composites industry as a whole as it tries to win more automotive real estate, Abouzahr said. Too often, composites suppliers spend too much time in competition with each other, forcing automakers to wade through information on processing methods and resin blends. Aluminum and steel specialists, meanwhile, step in with a more united voice.
``The aluminum guys will come in and they can give a whole-system solution,'' he said. ``I can't get this from composites guys.''