Green Cars: Plastics Make it Possible!

LA auto show white car

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

[Plastics Make it Possible sponsored the breakfast before the Green Car of the Year Award ceremony at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2016. The following is adapted from remarks by Keith Christman, Managing Director of ACC’s Plastics Division.]

The Green Car of the Year Award celebration is a good time to highlight how plastics make possible many of the innovations that lead to greener cars.

Plastics makers work together with the entire automotive value chain to help create lighter vehicles, increase fuel efficiency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, providing more sustainable solutions for today and tomorrow.

Fuel Economy Challenges and Solutions

Automakers must achieve corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. To meet these standards, automakers increasingly are turning to strong, lightweight plastics and composites to reduce weight. In fact, today lightweight plastics make up at least 50 percent of a vehicle’s volume—but only 10 percent of its weight. Every 10 percent reduction in weight can lead to 6-8 percent increase in fuel economy.

What does increasing the use of lightweight plastics in vehicles mean for the environment? Simply put: a lighter environmental footprint. The consulting firm Trucost performs environmental studies for many groups, including the United Nations Environment Programme. Trucost recently compared the environmental “costs” of using plastics with the environmental costs of using other materials. These costs come from a wide range of environmental impacts, such as energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, materials and resources used, manufacturing, use (driving), and disposal or recycling.

Trucost found that using plastics in 2015 passenger vehicles in North America:

  • results in $2.4 billion in environmental costs savings;
  • results in $162 per vehicle in environmental cost savings; and
  • saves 89 million gallons of gasoline and diesel over the lifetime of these vehicles.

Why the reduced environmental costs for plastics? In large part because light weighted vehicles consume less energy to move every single mile for their entire useful life. Using less fuel can mean much lower emissions and cleaner air for us all. And these savings can multiply globally.

Sustainability, Plus: Safety, Style, Affordability

Automakers are achieving their sustainability goals while providing the kind of safe, stylish, and affordable vehicles that U.S. consumers want to buy.

  • Plastics have enabled multiple safety features such as seat belts, air bags, crumple zones—even newer pedestrian-friendly features such as impact-absorbing bumpers and external airbags.
  • Plastics also play a key role in innovative design, such as improving aerodynamics (another contribution to “green” cars) and consolidation of multiple parts.
  • Plastics have inspired more and more stylish interiors. The next time you sit in a modern car, take a look around. In many cars, even high-end luxury cars, nearly everything you touch involves the use of plastics, including the windshield. Even the seating in high-end cars is trending toward luxurious feeling plastic materials.
  • And automakers are providing these fuel-efficient, safe, well-designed, high performance cars that consumers demand at affordable price points… in part due to the role of plastics.

Plastics Advances Drive Innovation

And plastics continue to advance, providing even more value. For example, the high strength-to-weight ratio of advanced plastics and composites can improve safety and better protect vehicle occupants in a crash. Advanced composites such as carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) have been embraced by the racing industry over the past several decades, which has greatly enhanced driver protection.

More recently BMW unveiled its “carbon core” technology that uses CFRP throughout the vehicle’s unibody construction. BMW created a rigid safety cell around the passenger compartment of the i3, i8, and more recently the 7- and 5-Series sedans. While BMW is the first automaker to use revolutionary CFRP in a mass production vehicle, more automakers are expected to follow suit.

Advanced plastics and composites also enable the creation of cool, innovative, and unique vehicle designs that simply aren’t possible with traditional materials. For example, the design lines on the new Ford GT—an aerodynamically optimized, unique teardrop body shape—would not be possible without plastics and composites.

The Future: Improved Sustainability, Innovations… and Plastics

So… what does the future look like for the auto industry and advanced plastics?

  • By government estimates, fuel economy standards through 2025 are unlikely to drive electric and fuel cell vehicles into the mainstream. Gasoline-driven technologies are predicted to remain more cost-effective for automakers and consumers for the foreseeable future—which means automakers will continue relying on advanced, lightweight materials to reduce vehicle mass needed to meet fuel economy standards.
  • As light weighting demands accelerate, CFRP are expected to become more prevalent in mainstream cars, which will also enhance safety..
    • 3-D printing could transform the way we make and repair cars. Automakers already are using 3-D printing for rapid prototyping to help bring cars to market faster, and to quickly manufacture tools for building their cars. 3-D printed proof-of-concept cars already are being built, and the race is on to build 3-D printed cars that meet both government safety standards and consumer performance expectations. Plastics and composites are expected to be the materials of choice for 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. 3-D printing also may allow replacement parts to be printed at local repair shops. And some automakers 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.

  • Autonomous vehicles are on the cusp of realization. These vehicles will need to be lightweight and safe, which will continue the trend toward plastics. Federal safety regulators likely will require increased safety measures in autonomous cars, possibly leading to increased air bags, cushioning, crumple zones, and more. Many of these autonomous vehicles are expected to have heavier alternative drive trains, which will require significant light weighting in other parts of vehicles. In other words: more plastics.

Improved fuel economy. Enhanced safety. Innovative design. 3-D printed cars. Autonomous vehicles. These trends are inexorably changing the way cars are made and how they perform.

And plastics will continue to make it possible.