The Future of Our Vehicles: “Advanced, Lighter Materials”

Innovative plastics in future cars see-through graphic

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Over the past few decades, our cars and trucks have transformed into technological marvels, becoming safer, cooler, and more exciting to drive, while improving fuel efficiency and sustainability.

During this march of innovation, it may not have been so noticeable that the use of plastics has skyrocketed. Today’s cars are comprised of about 50 percent plastics by volume. (Look around the next time you’re in a car. Most everything you can touch is made with plastics.) BUT because plastics are typically lighter than other materials, plastics comprise only ten percent of today’s cars by weight.

Why is this important? Listen to Ford: “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.”

Those “advanced” materials—such as plastics and polymer composites, carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, 3-D printed plastic parts, even plastic parts made from carbon dioxide—are enabling remarkable improvements in safety, design, and performance and may usher in a whole new era in vehicle manufacturing and sustainability.

Here’s a quick look at some interesting developments and future plans that point to this new era…

3-D Printed Cars

Some automakers foresee the potential to use 3-D printing to create cars in widely distributed, smaller manufacturing facilities, using far fewer parts. And some point to a future of rapid customization and personalization of cars: going from unique design, computer modeling, to building (printing) in days, not years. This new manufacturing model may also lead to further improvements in sustainability.

While mainstream automakers already use 3-D printing for rapid prototyping to help bring cars to market faster, the race is on to build 3-D printed cars that meet both government safety standards and consumer performance expectations. Two approaches highlight this potential pathway…

  • To build its car chassis, Divergent3D starts with 3-D printed metal “nodes” that connect to carbon fiber-reinforced plastic structural rods in a process that looks sort of like assembling Tinker Toys. The company claims it has “tested the strength and durability of the chassis, and it is even stronger than current technology.” Additional parts also are 3-D printed and can be assembled in thirty minutes.

The body of Divergent3D’s protoytype, the Blade Supercar, is made of a plastic composite material, but the company says: “Since the body is not structural, it could be made from virtually anything – even spandex.” The car weighs less than 1,400 pounds and goes from zero to 60 in about 2.5 seconds.

Divergent3D envisions various companies using its technology in widely distributed micro factories that can rapidly create customized cars. The company claims that such manufacturing would radically reduce the environmental footprint of auto making.

  • Local Motors was the first to 3-D print an electric car, called Strati, which is made with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. The process of 3-D printing the Strati is quite efficient—it takes only a couple days to print the body of the vehicle, which is manufactured as one large piece.

The entire car is made up of only 50 or so parts. Considering that traditionally manufactured cars can contain tens of thousands of painstakingly assembled parts, this points to great potential for improved efficiency, cost savings, and convenience in auto manufacturing. Local Motors is developing additional vehicles, including the OLLI public transport vehicle (see below).

Mainstream automakers are taking notice of these manufacturing advances. For example, in March 2017 Ford announced testing of large-scale 3-D printing for potential application in future production vehicles and personalized car parts. Ford noted that printed auto parts can be lighter than traditionally manufactured parts, which can help improve fuel efficiency. Ford: “A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance, may weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart.”

OLLI

OLLI is a self-driving electric vehicle built with 3-D printing technology used on public roads in the Washington, DC, area. The composite material used for the vehicle is 80 percent acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic and 20 percent carbon fiber.

OLLI seats multiple people for a ride sharing experience that integrates the advanced cognitive computing capabilities of IBM Watson. Riders hop in and ask for recommendations for dinner or a sightseeing spot and then sit back and relax as OLLI takes them there. In addition to being lightweight and efficiently powered, many parts can be recycled at the end of OLLI’s lifespan—which means OLLI could represent the future of eco-friendly public transit.

Spira

Three-wheeled “cars” are nothing new… but manufacturing them predominantly with plastics is fairly new.

Spira is a three-wheeled vehicle made mostly of a tough honeycomb fiberglass, ABS plastic, and a thick protective layer of polypropylene plastic foam. The manufacturer says the design offers improved safety for the driver plus pedestrians and motorcyclists, who make up a large proportion of vehicle deaths, especially in developing countries.

In San Diego, a Spira was struck by a hit and run driver. The Spira and driver rolled four times after the crash—both were just scratched up but fine. The company CEO brings that roughed up Spira to auto shows to demonstrate its resilience.

The Spira is now available on a limited basis, but the CEO see tremendous opportunities for use as delivery and autonomous vehicles and in developing countries. It’s lightweight, significantly less expensive than typical cars, powered by an electric motor, and licensed and insured as a motorcycle. At the San Diego Auto Show, the CEO told Plastics Make it Possible that the company is developing a similarly built four-wheeled car.

While the future of such a radically redesigned vehicle is uncertain, it shines a light on the contribution of plastics to improved vehicle safety and sustainability.

Car Parts Made Out of Thin Air

Ford has announced plans to make auto parts using plastics made in part from captured carbon dioxide waste streams. Ford says the CO2 will be used as a feedstock to make foam plastics for use in seat cushions, seat backs, floor mats, and other components such as side paneling and consoles.

Ford researchers say they were inspired by plants that take in carbon dioxide and create complex sugars. In a similar vein, Ford is taking excess carbon dioxide and making durable plastics to use in vehicles. Even though it’s not sugar, the researchers said: “We think it’s pretty sweet.”

Due to testing requirements and the time needed to scale up production, Ford researchers expect the new biomaterials will go into production vehicles within four years. The company plans to develop additional plastic materials using captured carbon to contribute to sustainability.

Future?

Of course, nobody can predict the future direction of vehicles, but these advances reaffirm the key role plastics play in today’s cars, making them more fuel efficient, safer, more fun to drive, and reducing their environmental footprint. It’s likely that plastics will continue to play that role for the foreseeable future.