There's no shortage of great ideas for saving weight in vehicles using plastics. So what's holding the industry back? That's a question I'm hearing a lot today, as I blog and tweet from the Plastics in Lightweight & Electric Vehicles conference in Livonia, Mich. Bruce Benda, vice president for automotive & transportation at Bayer MaterialScience LLC, had one of the best answers. First, the context. Benda cited an example of a long fiber polyurethane underbody that the company helped design for a Ford Explorer simulation. The part could have helped save a whopping 45 pounds. For an industry that's trying to save grams, 45 pounds is massive. So why isn't this in commercial production yet? "This industry is very firmly entrenched in existing infrastructures and technologies," Benda said. But he hastened to say that he's excited about the potential for progress now. What's changed is that the government is now pushing automakers for rapid fuel economy improvements. The current 25 mpg average is supposed to hit 34.1 mpg by 2016, and 54.5 mpg by 2025. OEMs will be using a wide variety of strategies to meet those goals -- the experts say electrification will be a big part of the equation. But making vehicles lighter is also a high priority. Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process development at Magna International Inc., said the OEMs he talks to now say their No. 1 priority is mass reduction. Here are some more highlights from the conference today. Make sure to watch our Twitter page for updates throughout the event: Maurice Sessel, senior vice president at International Automotive Components North America, said future vehicle designs may eliminate the crossbeam, a metal structural part under the instrument panel that accounts for 30 percent of the weight in a vehicle interior. Sessel added that it will take close cooperation with OEMs to bring home new technology. Magna's Pilette highlighted the company's extensive use of different materials, noting that Magna is materials agnostic. But he added that while the company is looking at applications for biomaterials, it won't step up their use until they are cost-neutral to customers. Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, said so-called "driverless technology" is technologically feasible now, and could be commercial by 2020. That's a trend being driven by the federal government too -- regulators want to create cars that won't crash, in order to reduce vehicle fatalities to zero. There are materials implications to that push. For example, think of all the automotive parts that have to be steel or aluminum now in order to protect the driver and passengers in a crash. Now imagine that the car is designed to never crash... Baron believes the future lightweight vehicle will be a mixed material product - not aluminum-intensive, steel-intensive or plastics-intensive. Tom Gould, design director for North America for Johnson Controls Inc., says suppliers and OEMs need to collaborate to make lightweight vehicles. That means bringing designers to the table. And once they're part of the team, push them to solve problems. "That's what they're trained to do," he said. "Don't let them off the hook." Likewise, Jim Tobin, chief marketing officer at Magna, said that to cut weight, suppliers need to use high tech expertise to deliver solutions that are affordable, environmentally friendly and reliable. "This is where our industry shines," he said.
Using more plastics for more MPG
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