When the June 1989 issue of Popular Science introduced three cutting-edge automotive technologies, including the latest Corvette and a powerful engine for pickups and sports cars, the flashy, exciting vehicle picked to grace its cover was a minivan.
General Motors' “radical” plastic van, the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina APV, was presented as a paragon of technology and engineering. Readers marveled over the damage-resistant fender — a hammer bounced right off! — and how, according to PopSci, the van “fits as neatly into contemporary lifestyles as a well-worn pair of jeans.”
With its next generation of vehicles GM reverted to steel for body parts, anticipating higher volumes for which a composite body would be less practical.
“At that time, for that volume, for that customer, the business case and the features that composites can offer if done right, it wasn't really the best choice,” said Dave Reed, who retired from GM after 45 years. The consultant talked with Plastics News via phone and email.
“The growing use of composite body panels was gaining rapid momentum and support from design, engineering and most importantly from our customers. However, we were ahead of the times in terms of existing capital investments and composite materials and processing,” he added
Reed described “over-enthusiasm in the industry” around plastic-bodied vehicles, stemming from the popularity of GM's Pontiac Fiero and Saturn programs, both sporting the technology.
Tom Russell, CEO of Allied Composite Technologies LLC, remembers thinking composite bodies would be the next big thing. Before Allied Composites, Russell spent 15 years at Lear Corp. and 10 at GE Plastics.
“I thought we'd see a lot more of those, because they would have given us a real opportunity to make very quick design changes, and very inexpensive design changes on cars,” he said. “But they discovered better and better metals and they discovered how to help their corrosion issues” and composite bodies fell behind.
But though the time wasn't right in the early ‘90s, the industry may be ready to revisit the technology. More new models coming out in lower volumes, and a need for fresh and different styling, could mean an increased demand for composites.
“There will be a huge opportunity for composite body vehicles,” Reed said. “Composite body panels offer mass savings with lower cost tools and faster tool lead times and give customers far better damage resistance to everyday knocks and dings than steel or aluminum.”
With faster turnover, more damage resistance would help increase the resale value of used vehicles, he added.
And of course, efforts to improve fuel economy that ramped up with the new millennium have accelerated development and use of plastics because of their lightweight properties.
“The use of plastics is now, I think, again really on the front burner,” Russell said. “A lot of the times in the early ‘90s we were looking at things where you had to justify the prices, you couldn't make the change to plastic because it cost more. And that was a problem. But now, because of the issues of what we're coming into with regulations and fuel economy and everything else, now it's really starting to turn back into a golden age.”
But maybe GM was on to something with its plastic van. The Lumina APV also boasted seats that could be rearranged “as easily as moving the living room furniture around,” according to PopSci. The shift toward viewing car interiors as more of a living space has been one of the most noticeable changes in the past 25 years, said David Baughman, who has been executive vice president at polyurethane foam parts supplier Plastomer Corp. for 30 years.
Baughman said he's seen dramatic improvements in interior quality over the past 25 years and expects the trend to only continue as autonomous technologies place more emphasis on the riding experience.
“I think it's going to continue and perhaps increase because of the development of these cars that are going to drive themselves,” he said. “When they get to the point where you can really rely on that, I think the interiors are going to start looking more like living rooms than the interiors of cars … the interiors are going to be evolving even more so.”
Customers now expect living room furniture-quality car interiors instead of patio furniture-quality interiors, Reed said, and improved plastics and styling has made that possible.
Looking toward the future, Reed sees a need to help automakers recognize the full potential of plastics, including the capabilities of structural composites. Russell suggested taking a cue from the steel industry, which formed a consortium to develop new applications for their materials and demonstrate those capabilities to the automakers.
“The plastics industry is very fragmented on that score,” he said. “That's a huge challenge for the industry — that the plastic industry is fragmented and the other guys have their act together.”
With the combination of material advancements, evolving customer expectations and lightweighting efforts, the door has opened for plastics to take a lead.
“I think in the last 25 years, what we've done is we've set the table for the future kinds of innovations and advances that we're going to make with plastics in automobiles,” Russell said. “There's been a lot of continual improvement that is now going to accelerate rapidly.”