My first day working at Plastics News took me to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2000.
General Motors was introducing a pair of new vehicles, including the Pontiac Aztek. I like to joke that my future turned out to be far better than the Aztek's.
Over the past 18 years, I've seen a crazy range of both cars and press events at the Detroit show, like the bulls herded along the street in front of Cobo Center for the Dodge Ram introduction while reporters huddled next to heaters in risers set up on the sidewalk.
There was concept that was unveiled, then hidden again behind a curtain — a curtain that wasn't quite long enough to hide the feet of the stage hands who had to push the non-functioning car to another spot before the stage was officially opened to the press.
And then there were the empty spaces on the show floor in 2009 and 2010 after the Great Recession sent both Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy.
If it's one thing I've learned in that time, it's that automakers hate the word "plastic," no matter how much of it they use. and will continue to use. (The American Chemistry Council estimates that plastics now make up 50 percent of a vehicle by volume, but 10 percent by weight. And the need to cut weight and improve fuel economy is predicted to boost plastics use by another 70 percent within the decade.)
So if you want to track the shiny new plastics parts coming out on new cars introduced at Detroit each year, you have to listen for the right code words.
• Composites. Automakers may not like the word plastic, but composite must sound just techy enough to make them happy. Sure it may be a glass-filled nylon that's been on the market for years, but they'll be happy to talk about their "all new, lightweight composite" part on their 260-horsepower engine.
• Carbon fiber. If you think automakers love composites, just give them the chance to talk about carbon fiber. Never mind if the CF is just a decorative element. It looks cool. The auto show is all about what's cool.
• Soft touch. Improvements in production have made it possible to put multilayer interior parts integrating a foam beneath a PVC or thermoplastic polyolefin or urethane skin even on entry level cars. It improves the look and feel of instrument panels compared to "cheap black plastic." (Psst: soft touch plastics are still plastics.)
• LED lights or light pipes. They won't mention the polycarbonate, acrylic or LSR that goes into eye catching headlights and taillights and decorative trim that accentuates the body shape, but they will talk about how it stands out from the crowd.
• SKP. My personal favorite, courtesy of a couple of designers, is definitely SKP. I'd been with Plastics News a few years by the time an automaker showed a utility vehicle that it boasted could stand up to the "wet dog test." As in, if a wet dog shook itself dry inside your car, you could still easily clean the surfaces. I asked the designers if they knew what material was planned for their easy cleaning material.
"SKP," they replied. I went over the list of acronyms I knew in my mind. TPO, PVC, ABS, TPV ... but I didn't recall ever hearing about SKP. I confessed my ignorance and asked them what, exactly, SKP was.
"Some kind of plastic," came the reply.
Probably the most honest answer I ever heard at the auto show.