Green is the latest buzz word in the auto industry.
While cost reduction still is a major issue to automakers, suppliers say their customers now want to know more about ways to improve fuel economy and hit increasing emissions standards - and that is opening the door to plastics, including environmentally friendly plastics, and other lightweight materials.
The new emphasis was visible all over the show floor during SAE International's 2008 World Congress, April 12-17 in Detroit. German carmaker BMW AG was showing off its hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine, complete with new studies from the U.S. government's Argonne National Laboratories. Toyota Motor Corp. was touting its hybrid cars and fuel-cell technology.
Suppliers, as well, were quick to point out their earth-friendly attributes. Plasan Carbon Composites demonstrated the benefits of light weight from carbon fiber. Lear Corp. showed seats made with a urethane foam blend featuring soybean-based resin. PPG Industries Inc. noted how a plastic inner layer in side windows can improve summertime driving performance - by limiting sun absorption through the glass, reducing the use of air conditioning and allowing drivers to boost mileage by 2-3 percent.
The companies have made their claims before, but now more people are listening.
``What helps with our argument now is the regulation behind the need for better fuel economy,'' said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, vice president of automotive for resin supplier Rhodia SA of Lyon, France.
``They are now being forced to take all of the legislation into account when they're making business decisions.''
And at the same time, he said, consumers want to see more from businesses about their environmental actions.
Rhodia has focused its marketing around the new drive for improved environmental performance, showing how its products can aid in reducing vehicle weight - which improves gas mileage - and emissions from carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
It is not alone.
To take the weight out of structural components, DuPont Co. has its MetaFuse line of metal and plastic hybrids and resins from renewable sources such as corn, soybeans, sugar cane and wheat.
In its annual survey of engineers, conducted prior to SAE, Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont found that 32 percent of the engineers still call cost reduction the top challenge facing the auto industry, but fuel economy comes close after at 28 percent, and emission and air regulation issues at 25 percent.
Together the fuel and emissions issues easily top cost, noted Chris Murphy, director-Americas for DuPont Automotive.
``Environmental considerations are driving system and vehicle design and development,'' he said.
Those concerns also are leading to more collaboration between automakers and suppliers - and earlier collaboration, Rhodia's Steinmetz said. Carmakers and their designers need to know more about how to use alternative materials, opening the potential for plastics to win over new business.
``If you have to reduce weight, you cannot do it with the same materials,'' he said. ``The whole debate is open again about where to use plastics: for body panels, in engines, in seats.''
For seat maker Lear, that means finding new ways to use plastics while also re-engineering the car seat. In addition to its soy-based urethane foam, the Southfield, Mich.-based auto supplier has found ways to reduce seat weight by replacing some foam with an expanded polypropylene that is formed to create the seat base and back, improving comfort and reducing weight by anywhere from 15-85 percent, depending on how much EPP is used in place of urethane foam, said Ash Galbreath, director of environmental comfort engineering.
Urethane foam is then used strategically to cushion for comfort. Lear also boosts its environmental credentials for the seat by attaching the foam to the EPP with injection molded clips, rather than glue, making it easier to disassemble for recycling.
Lear is now offering some version of its urethane and EPP seat, which it calls the Dynamic Environmental Comfort System, in every contract it has a chance to bid on, Galbreath said. Not every carmaker has bought into the program, but they're interested.
The new environmental focus may not show up on cars right away. Most of the design and engineering for lightweight materials is still in development for future vehicles, according to Steinmetz. But the auto industry's focus on fuel economy and sustainability appears to be here for the long term.