Automotive: Creating a smart car environment with plastics

Plastics remain as cornerstone materials in producing smart cars that meet the mobility and sustainability requirements of today, says Angelica Buan in this report.

Concept cars bedecked with technological gizmos are no longer the dream machines paraded only at car shows. Many of them are now being rolled out from production halls as prototypes for real cars frilled with smart technologies.

However, there is more to the functionalities of advanced systems in smart cars that make the sales pitch. Certainly, car buyers want to be assured of safety, fuel economy, and comfort of their vehicles.

As autonomous/driverless and AI-enabled cars are making inroads, the changing mobility trends envisage smart cars to serve as an extension of the user’s private space outside of their home or domicile. The vehicle, thus, must match the needs, purpose and expectations of the user with ease, accuracy and security for total user experience.

Consumers’ interior motives

Automotive interiors, which include components like central console, infotainment systems, modules, seats and door panels, are increasingly becoming an important brand differentiator. Acumen Research and Consulting, in its report, pegs the global automotive interior market size to reach nearly US$424 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 6.1% from 2020.

As such, automotive manufacturers are taking stock of what can enhance the interior’s aesthetic appeal and user comfort.

Polymers producer Asahi Kasei Plastics North America has developed the engineered resin series SoForm, a class-A surface material. A part of the Thermylene range of chemically-coupled glass fibre-reinforced PPs, it offers low emissions and scratch resistance. It also has a haptic surface feel and improved durability, compared to competitors, Asahi Kasei stated. It is also cost-effective for manufacturers because the resins do not require paint, over-moulding or foam in place.

The SoForm technology has applications for instrument panels, door panels and associated touch points (map pockets, console sides, mirror surrounds and seat trim).

Automotive: Creating a smart car environment with plastics

Lightweight vehicles are driving the market Fortune Business Insights, in its 2019-2026 report, forecasts a strong growth for automotive interior materials market, driven by an increasing demand for lightweight materials for automotive and e-vehicles. By 2026, the market could reach US$66.4 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 3.8% from 2019.

Lightweight automobiles contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. In a typical car, 50% plastics by volume accounts for only 10% by weight; and a 10% reduction in vehicle weight results in 7% fuel usage savings.

In a lightweighting example, a research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT worked with German automotive parts manufacturer Mahle Group, German automotive maker Daimler AG, plastics solutions company SBHPP/Vyncolit and tooling/ composites specialist Georges Pernoud Group to develop a camshaft module from fibrereinforced thermoset polymers. To substitute the currently used aluminium, the lightweight design, according to Fraunhofer, can reduce engine weight and assembly costs, as well as slash CO2 emissions.

Automotive: Creating a smart car environment with plastics

Camshafts ensure that the charge-cycle valves in internal combustion engines are opened and closed reliably and precisely. These valves are located in the camshaft module, the standard material for which is still aluminium metal. Weight reduction is one of the most effective methods for reducing CO2 emissions.

The fibrereinforced thermoset polymers are able to withstand high temperatures, mechanical and chemical stresses, such as those caused by synthetic motor oils and coolants. The camshaft module is located in the cylinder head, so normally in the upper installation space of the powertrain. Thus, by reducing weight of the module also contributes to lowering the vehicle’s centre of gravity.

Waste plastics for environmentally-responsible vehicles

Regardless of the disruptions in mobility trends, plastics will remain a staple material in the vehicle manufacturing sphere.

US speciality materials company Eastman is collaborating with North American automotive plastic coatings company NB Coatings to offer its Trēva engineering bioplastic for interior Class A painted surfaces.

With the recent commercialisation of its carbon renewal technology, Eastman’s proprietary recycling process recycles waste plastic typically sent to landfills or found as litter in waterways. With this it produces cellulose-based Trēva, which has 42-46% sustainably-sourced biobased and recycled content. When painted with NB Coatings’ paint systems, Trēva can meet the demanding Class A surface requirements as specified by OEMs.

Trēva is an alternative to PC, ABS and PC/ABS for interior automotive applications at a cost-neutral position, according to Eastman. It is said to exhibit high performance with optical and birefringence properties for high clarity. It also withstands the challenges of automotive interiors, including high temperatures, humidity, UV, scratch/mar and general durability requirements. With its low VOC emissions, which is critical for interior parts, processing ease and flow for good dimensional stability, the material is a winner for automotive parts.


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