Detroit — Speakers from General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. discussed big-picture trends and challenges for the automotive industry as they settle into a mode of transformation.
During a March 21 session at Antec, GM's Paul Krajewski provided an overview of the Detroit automaker's vision of the future, which encompasses four key areas: electric, connected, shared and autonomous.
"There's been tremendous progress in the industry in moving forward from gas engines to electric," he said, citing the Chevy Bolt's battery range of 238 miles.
Plastics can play a role in three areas for battery electric and fuel cell vehicles: in the battery, in the fuel cell stack and in the electric drive, Krajewski said. Battery frames are usually made with nylon, though he said GM is exploring the use of other materials such as PPO or polyphenylene oxide.
"There are tremendous opportunities to look at these materials and try to go after lightweighting and, ultimately, get after cost as well," he said.
Ford's Debbie Mielewski, who has spent more than 30 years at the automaker working on material development, said the industry is "moving in brand-new directions."
"We've got to get ready because all of the materials are going to change," she warned.
A key area of research for the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker has been in noise, vibration and harshness — all of which will need to be further refined if buzzing, humming and roaring gasoline engines are eliminated and vehicle cockpits evolve into spaces for relaxation.
Mielewski, senior technical leader for sustainability and emerging materials, said her team recently implemented graphene foams into 11 under-the-hood components on six Ford vehicle programs.
"The discovery was that a bit of nanographene — less than 0.2 percent — provided a 30 percent improvement in noise, vibration [and] harshness," she said.
But the biggest plastics opportunity, by volume, has been in battery covers, Krajewski said, pointing to the sheet molding compound cover used in the Chevy Volt.
But those battery covers are changing as automakers like Detroit-based GM pursue a dedicated architecture for future battery electric vehicles. Krajewski described the battery used here as a long, thin slab that is integrated into the floor of the vehicle.
"As we move forward, these covers are going to have a much more structural performance requirement," said Krajewski, highlighting crucial properties such as stiffness, insulation and temperature resistance.
"That's a huge opportunity to explore potential design solutions, but also material solutions, that will enable us to do these long, flat batteries," he said.
Mass and cost will continue to be the two biggest drivers when it comes to innovation in materials, processes and parts applications, however.
"Without a doubt, in order to work your way down these curves to reach the targets that we need to, mass and cost are of continued importance," Krajewski said.