Automotive: Fuel economy sets in motion vehicles’ requirements

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In the future, cars may be smarter, flashier or more autonomous; but a few features, such as being lightweight and fuel efficient, may remain in style, says Angelica Buan.

Vehicles provide the canvas for the latest technologies and systems in safe, fun and efficient driving. The piecemeal evolution of cars, from the horse-powered carriages, to the first motorised Benz car to driverless and connectivityenabled hybrid cars, proves that engineering possibilities are almost endless.

McKinsey & Company in its report on the global automotive industry by 2020 sees global profits for automotive OEMs to increase by nearly 50%, driven by growths in emerging markets.

In the same token, the report projects four key challenges, which OEMs will have to comply with even beyond 2020 to ensure this growth. These are: cost and regulatory pressures, as well as complexity in arising platform sharing and modular systems; adaption to the changing regional and segment patterns of supply and demand; demand for connectivity, safety and ease of use; and the shifting industry landscape, whereby suppliers will add more value in alternative powertrain technologies and in innovative solutions for active safety and infotainment.

In short, the growth of the car industry is anchored on continuous innovations and OEM’s capability for retooling their strategies.

Nevertheless, what is crucial is how these strategies will impact the environment from hereon. Currently, the industry focuses on fuel economy. This impetus will augur the landscape for the automotive industry come 2020.

Fuel efficiency will continue to define market growth

A benchmark of today’s generation of cars is light weighting for fuel-efficient driving, which has burgeoned as a result of rising oil prices. It is also a result of the call from global movers like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for its climate change initiative to keep in check worsening vehicle efficiency (especially in non-OECD countries where 90% of the vehicle fleet growth is projected to take place, UNEP said), henceforth boosting the marketplace for fuel efficient cars. The use of plastics has supported the production of more fuel efficient cars.

Three years from now to 2020, fuel efficiency is expected to remain the model for car development.

Plastics, the backbone of light weighting in automotive, are foreseen to account for over US$40 billion in the passenger car market by 2020, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. The market size for automotive plastics market for passenger cars is chiefly driven by the potential for maximum mass reduction of automobile and carbon emissions by decreasing the weight of the vehicle.

A key application for automotive plastics is in the interiors, followed by exteriors and under-thehood, according to MarketsandMarkets.

More plastics will find their way to automotive applications

By 2020, plastics will find a broader application to ensure passenger safety and convenience, as well as overall manufacturing cost reduction, said MarketsandMarkets.

UK-headquartered IHS Markit, additionally, suggests that carbon fibre will enjoy an increase in demand in automotive manufacturing, doubling from 2015 to 2020. Lead author Michael Malveda of the report: IHS Chemical Carbon Fibres, Chemical Economics Handbook, says that carbon fibre enables vehicles to be made lighter and more fuel efficient, in compliance with the global thrust to curb carbon emissions from improved fuel economy.


Vehicles in the coming decade will top the bill (alongside the building and construction sector) of the global consumption of 5 million tonnes of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs), according to a Smithers Rapra report, The Future of Thermoplastic Elastomers to 2020. It predicts that automotive and other transportation applications will reach a share of 44% in the end-use market for TPEs.

Persistence Markets Research, in its automotive plastic opportunities report, adds on to the roster of plastics that it forecasts will garner popularity in automotive components applications, such as in bumpers, seating upholstery, dashboards, fuel systems, body panels, under-the-hood parts, interior/exterior trims, electrical components, lighting, and liquid reservoirs. Plastics that are mainly used in these parts include PP, PU, PVC, PA, PS, PE, ABS, PC, HDPE, PMMA, PET, ASA, PBT and composites.

Bioplastics will also be making inroads in future cars. Japanese car maker Mazda Motor has adopted biobased engineering plastic Durabio, developed by Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation (MCC). The new grade has been used for interior and exterior design parts of Mazda’s CX-9, Axela, and Demio since 2015, and it was first adopted for the Roadstar launched late last year. The Roadstar RF is the fifth model to use Durabio, and the new grade will be adopted for more models, says Mazda.


Durabio is a biopolycarbonate resin derived mainly from plant-based isosorbide but it is not biodegradable. Compared with conventional PC resin made from bisphenol A, it is said to feature high transparency, excellent optical properties, and outstanding scratch resistance. Its puncture impact behaviour is comparable to that of PC resin, says MCC. When mixed with a pigment, Durabio imparts a glossy and highly reflective surface, it adds. These properties mean that Durabio eliminates the need for a coating step, thereby reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) inherent in any such process, MCC explains.

Mazda has been listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in last year’s Light Duty Fuel Economy Trends Report, as having the highest overall Manufacturer Adjusted Fuel Economy in 2015. Its overall average fuel economy was 29.6 miles per gallon (mpg), an improved 0.2 mpg over the previous year, the report cited.

Use of metal components on the decline

Modern cars, on an average, are made up of 50% plastic, yet that bulk contributes to only 10% of the total vehicle weight. Plastic-clad interiors and exteriors of cars have become a staple feature for fuel economy driving, even with concept cars that are expected to be seen more of in 2020.


German speciality chemicals company BASF and Korean car maker Hyundai Motor teamed up on a high performance concept car, RN30, which was launched at the 2016 Paris Motor Show and presented at the K2016 show in Dusseldorf, Germany, that same year.

The RN30 features BASF’s expertise in developing high performance plastic materials to achieve the aerodynamic design of the race car with reduced weight and lowered centre of gravity by lowering the seats, removing redundant parts, and making the heavier parts sit in the lowest possible position. The use of plastics is what makes RN30 unique compared to most high performance cars that use carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRPs), according to Hyundai. These weightsaving innovations are light, highly durable and environmentally-friendly and are used throughout the new concept to help boost handling and acceleration, it adds.

Side mirrors may no longer be made of glass

Gone will be the days of shatter-prone side mirrors and poor blind spot views. An innovation by a senior researcher from Future Industries Institute of the University of South Australia is reinventing side mirrors with plastics. Researcher Colin Hall says that plastic side mirrors propose several advantages over glass counterparts, including light weight, hence less vibration that results in higher quality images; break-resistance, versatility in shape as it can be injection-moulded to more complex shapes with high curves for better blind spot detection; and easy assembly since plastic mirrors require fewer parts. The downside, however, is cost. Using plastic mirrors, that are comparatively more expensive than glass ones, are nonetheless more cost-effective in the long term, Hall advises.

SMR Industries (Adelaide), a subsidiary of the German company SMR Automotive Mirrors Stuttgart, is commercialising the mirrors. US car maker Ford has already used the plastic mirrors as optional tow mirrors for its F-series trucks.


Hall spent two years to produce the desired outcome, which is for the plastic mirror to be “as good as glass.” Experimenting with different techniques, what finally transpired was a plastic with five layer of coatings: polysiloxane, a layer of silicon dioxide, a chrome alloy (for the mirror finish), another layer of silicon dioxide (for scratch resistance), and a hydrophobic or water repelling layer for easy cleaning of the mirror.

The inventor is eyeing on developing metallooking plastics for use in automotive accessories like wheel trims, grills, and others parts that are traditionally made of metals.

Largest rear quarter window in plastic

Luxury cars are no longer symbols of “excess”, and instead the royalties of car brands are latching on to fuel economy designs.

A recent innovation offering this advantage is showcased by Chinese SAIC General Motor (SGM), a joint venture between General Motors Company and SAIC Motor. The car maker has introduced the world’s largest PC rear quarter window for Buick GL8 and GL8 Avenir luxury multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) being sold in China.


The new rear quarter window measures a recordbreaking 1,200 mm by 450 mm, and yet is 40% or 3 kg lighter as well as significantly more impact resistant than a comparable glass window, says SAIC.

Materials company Sabic teamed up with Ningbo Shentong Auto Decorations, a long-time manufacturer of automotive plastic applications that also provided the design and other required technical assistance; SGM chose Shentong as its Tier One supplier for this key window part.

Shentong invested in a new production facility in Yuyao City (China), which is also the first mass production PC glazing line in the country.

The window is two-shot injection compression moulded at Shentong’s facility, using Sabic’s Lexan PC resin and Cycoloy resin, a PC/ABS material (used for the blackout area). This resin combination helps meet the specific needs of the part’s design and the tight dimensional tolerance requirements of the large rear quarter window. A silicone hard coat protects the part against abrasion and weathering.

“In addition to significant weight reduction, PC glazing allows for greater innovation than is now possible in glass, like design and styling freedom, thermal efficiency and parts integration,” said Jun Luo, Shentong’s Deputy General Manager.

SGM is offering five trim levels of the popular GL8 model, which has been a mainstay of the Chinese market since 2000 with more than 700,000 sold.

The establishment of new PC glazing manufacturing capability in China comes at a time when automotive makers in the country and across the world are under pressure to adopt lightweight technologies that can help them comply with increasingly stringent emission and fuel economy standards, in addition to improving the driving range of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, Sabic’s Lexan PC is used for the rear quarter window sported by Toyota’s special edition 68 GRMN sports car – the first production vehicle to feature the automotive part in PC material with a plasma-coated solution. The sports vehicle, exclusive to Japan, was exhibited at a Tokyo automotive show in 2016.


Because Toyota aimed to achieve regulatory requirements at a global level, it turned to Sabic’s Exatec plasma technology. The flexible glass-like coating is deposited on top of a base wet coat to enhance performance. The window is about 50% lighter compared to a conventional glass solution.

Traditionally, rear quarter windows in PC use wet-coat solutions. Depending on vehicle type and passenger position, wet-coat solutions can meet industry requirements for weatherability and abrasion resistance at that window location. In some cases though, a higher level of performance is required to meet driver visibility needs, according to Sabic.


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