In France, automaker Renault SA has launched a limited edition of its Megane R26 sports car with polycarbonate rear and side windows.
In Germany, Webasto AG is investing more than 10 million euros ($12.7 million) to double its capacity to mold and glaze PC windows for the auto industry.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd. uses PC for the lower portion of the rear window in its European version of its Civic.
Automakers globally are using the thermoplastic on their concept cars for panoramic roofs, side windows and rear windows.
But in North America, PC's is still waiting for its major breakthrough. It appears extensively on only one North American-made car a panoramic roof on some models of General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Corvette. But that may change soon, said plastics industry experts and auto suppliers during the Plastics in Automotive Glazing 2008 conference Nov. 12-13 in Livonia.
Tougher fuel economy standards will have automakers looking at ways to shave pounds off of their cars by using PC in place of glass, while designers who have used PC in concept cars are eager to put it to use on cars that will hit the road within the next few years.
Webasto, based in Stockdorf, Germany, makes the PC panoramic roof panel for the Smart minicar, and has turned out about 170,000 of the two-shot glazed panels since beginning production in January 2007.
The investment for an additional Krauss-Maffei two shot press and a coating line from German company Eisenmann at Webasto's Schierling, Germany, plant will enable the company to boost production to 320,000 parts annually from 160,000.
Webasto has secured four contracts with automakers to help fill that new capacity, including a front deflector panel for a roof module, said Peter Michalsky, project manager for the European region for Webasto. He expects additional expansion will take place after 2011.
``We are not through,'' he said. ``Growth is still taking place. [But] to really make a difference with glazing technology, we need to go a long way.''
Weight is one of the biggest drivers leading potential expansion. Smart reduced the weight of its roof module by 12.1 pounds just by switching to the PC module.
Weight helped prompt Renault to swap out glass for PC in the rear side windows and rear window of the Megane when it wanted to coax higher performance out of the car, said Stephen Shuler, chief technology officer for Exatec LLC, the Wixom, Mich.-based subsidiary of Sabic Innovative Plastics, which is researching ways to improve PC glazing for the auto industry.
``The auto industry is looking for low cost, right now, mile-per-gallon increases,'' he said.
Trimming 26 pounds off of a vehicle can boost fuel economy by nearly a third of a percent, he said. That might not sound like much, but over an entire fleet of vehicles, it can make a difference. A fleet of 250,000 vehicles driving 10,000 miles per year would save 516,000 gallons of fuel over the course of a year.
But weight is not everything. There are several technologies in the wings touting their fuel sipping ways, and PC windows cost more than traditional glass in a simple one-for-one replacement. North American scratch resistance standards for polycarbonate glazing also are different than European or Japanese tests, which presents another hurdle for suppliers to cross.
However, the plastics industry can turn to a second weapon to make its case for PC design.
Polycarbonate makes it possible for carmakers to create swooping see-through parts. Combine part consolidation with those designs, and cars could have a panel that wraps around the back of a car and integrates rear lights.
The PC on the Renault sports car bumps up design flexibility by using a ``blackout ink'' technology developed by Exatec which allows for multiple colors. Exatec also has developed an inmold film Exatec E900 Grafx which will allows molders to turn out PC with complex, multiple-color graphics that still can be glazed for scratch resistance.
Design should do more than help PC break through to wider use, said Stefan Grunhagel, general manager of Plastics-Design GmbH of Bad Salzuflen, Germany.
``Once they make the change to PC, they will have changed the shape forever, and they won't want to go back to glass,'' he said.