Advanced Plastics are the Future of Our Autos

2016 L.A. Auto Show Photo Gallery

LA Auto show purple sports car

What does this high-end, futuristic, 3-D printed supercar have in common with your everyday sedan? Lots of advanced plastics.

LA auto show white car

This cutting-edge vehicle chassis demonstrates how plastics and 3-D printing could revolutionize the car manufacturing process.

LA Auto show motercycle

Looking to minimize weight and maximize speed? 3-D printed plastics help with both—while contributing to durability and safety.

LA Auto show white car

Thanks in large part to lightweight, durable plastics, "hybrid" and "high-performance" are no longer mutually exclusive.

LA Auto Show black car

Splitters, wheel spats, and other parts with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics can lighten a vehicle—while delivering a big performance boost.

LA Auto show car dashboard

No longer just for race cars! Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics also are used for stylish "bling" on today's luxury cars.

LA Auto Show white cadillac

Advanced plastics help dramatically lighten vehicle components, helping automakers combine hybrid technology with a luxury experience.

LA Auto Show blue sports car

This sleek, aerodynamic design made possible by advanced plastics doesn't just look cool—it also helps improve performance and fuel efficiency.

LA Auto Show car tire on sports car

Strong and sleek. Bold design elements molded with durable plastics make a distinctive statement.

LA Auto Show speaker

At the LA Auto Show, Keith Christman of Plastics Make it Possible® explains how innovative, advanced plastics are a big part of today's—and the future's—automotive industry.

From high-end sports cars to your everyday minivan, plastics have revolutionized the automotive industry. Some of the newest, most cutting-edge vehicles—such as those displayed at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show—can give us a glimpse at how plastics will continue to “drive” future automotive innovation.

These vehicles represent significant advances in manufacturing, safety, design, performance, and fuel efficiency, and they all have something in common: advanced plastics.

Manufacturing

Not so long ago, plastics inspired automakers to rethink the materials they use for their vehicles—and now, plastics are actually bringing about the evolution of the manufacturing process itself. Plastics are well suited for 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing), a process in which layer upon layer of material is built up to form an object—a car part, in this instance. This process can create less waste than traditional manufacturing techniques that strip away material from a larger piece. Plus, it gives manufacturers the flexibility to produce more creative or custom designs.

Quick history: Local Motors was one of the first to 3-D print an electric car, called Strati, which is made with a plastic composite called carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP). The process of 3-D printing the Strati with CFRP is quite efficient—it takes only a couple days to print the body of the vehicle, which is manufactured as one large piece. Considering that traditionally manufactured cars can contain tens of thousands of painstakingly assembled parts, that’s a big deal—with great potential for improved efficiency, cost savings, and convenience in auto manufacturing.

At the recent LA Auto Show, Local Motors featured Olli, an autonomous, electric vehicle made with 3-D printed thermoplastics. Olli seats multiple people for a ride sharing experience like no other, in particular because the vehicle integrates the advanced cognitive computing capabilities of IBM Watson. Hop in and ask it for recommendations for dinner or a sightseeing spot, then sit back and relax as Olli takes you there. In addition to being lightweight and efficiently powered, many parts can be recycled at the end of Olli’s lifespan due to its plastic construction—all of which means Olli just might represent the future of eco-friendly public transit.

Vehicle Design and Performance

Advanced plastics also help enable innovations in vehicle design and performance. For the Chevy 2017 Corvette Z06, the automaker created an aesthetic that’s distinctively bold and super sleek, employing unique design elements that use durable plastics molded into the body of the vehicle. Looking for a performance boost to go with that stylish design? Rest assured: plastics help make this car lightweight and aerodynamic, which contributes to improved speed and handling.

Another example: designers of the Cadillac CT6 created its hood, splitter, and wheel spats using CFRP, high-performance materials with truly exceptional strength-to-weight ratios. Not only are these design elements very cool-looking and super lightweight, but they actually enhance the performance of the vehicle; the splitter, for example, forces low-pressure air underneath the car to maintain traction at high speeds. Some car companies also make spoilers and air dams, which are designed to help performance, with CFRP.

Fuel Efficiency

“…today’s vehicles are comprised of approximately 50 percent plastics by volume but only 10 percent plastics by weight.”

Modern, fuel-efficient cars have come a long way since the heavy gas-guzzlers your parents or grandparents drove. Among other reasons, that’s because heavier materials are being replaced with lightweight and durable plastics, so much so that today’s vehicles are comprised of approximately 50 percent plastics by volume but only 10 percent plastics by weight. Automakers are increasingly “lightweighting” their vehicles by using innovative plastics and plastic composites such as CFRP, helping them meet fuel-efficiency goals while also enhancing performance and safety.

A couple of very high-performance examples displayed at the LA Auto Show: the front splitter and rear diffuser in the stylish Aston Martin Vanquish S. These lightweight, aerodynamic components help improve fuel efficiency, leading to more miles with less fuel while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

So … advanced plastics = improved fuel efficiency and performance. It’s a win-win-win-win-win. As Ford Motor Company said: “Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities—acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency—can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.”

The Road Ahead

Not so long ago, technologies such as 3-D printing, self-driving vehicles, and super-lightweight, aerodynamic car parts might have seemed a bit like science fiction. But thanks to advanced plastics, your custom 3-D printed car—or maybe your first ride in a fully autonomous public transit vehicle—may be closer than you think.

For more than half a century, plastics have enabled automakers to dream up amazing new technologies and bring them to life. We can only imagine what automotive innovations the next half century will usher in, but one thing’s for sure: plastics will continue to make many of them possible.

Reference to any automobile manufacturer or display of any associated product is for descriptive purposes only, and does not imply sponsorship, endorsement or association with ACC or its PMIP campaign.