After years of half-hearted efforts, the U.S. government is finally getting serious about making automobiles more energy efficient.
Now is the plastics industry's opportunity to shine.
Reaching the new goal for corporate average fuel economy — or CAFE — of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 is going to take a tremendous effort.
To hit that number, automakers will be using a wide variety of new technologies — turbochargers and superchargers, stop-start systems, gasoline direct injection, better transmissions, and new computer controls.
Plastics can play a role in some of those efforts. But the major opportunity is simple: to make vehicles lighter.
There will be opportunities in vehicle interiors, exteriors, under the hood, and even in structural components.
As Detroit-based staff reporter Rhoda Miel points out in this week's Page 1 story, Ford Motor Co. already has a goal to lighten cars by 200-700 pounds in the coming years. Other carmakers, in the United States and around the world, will have similar targets.
The plastics industry can start with proven technology — replacing metal in body panels and interiors, for example, and replacing glass in windows and sunroofs.
The auto industry will need help with this task. This is an opportunity for the best and brightest minds in plastics research and development to think outside the box.
Material suppliers and component makers will need to be working with auto designers to find new opportunities to consolidate plastic parts and make components lighter. A great example: the thinner-concept seats proposed by Johnson Controls Inc. and Faurecia SA.
Plastics have long had a friendly relationship with the auto industry. This week I stumbled across a 1943 newspaper feature story that quoted experts about the fantastic growth the plastics industry was about to experience. Even then, it was already an established fact that the auto industry was one of the most important markets for plastics.
Remember, this was before plastics had begun to make a dent in the packaging, construction or medical markets.
In the nearly 70 years since that article was published, plastics have continued to make progress in the auto industry. But many opportunities have been missed along the way. Sometimes it's been because consumers preferred other materials. Sometimes it's been related to cost.
As I've noted before, resin and plastic component suppliers have been frustrated for many years by carmakers' reluctance to get serious about improving fuel economy. Now the carmakers are on board, and consumers appear willing to put fuel economy higher on their list of transportation priorities.
Now — finally — is the time to unleash the plastics industry's creative forces and help achieve — and surpass — the new government standards.