x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Car makers steeled for plastic age

In the drive to cut fuel consumption, car makers are increasingly switching to lightweight plastics and adhesives in place of welded metal.

The racing car designer Gordon Murray has built a prototype called the T.25, a three-seater car made from lightweight plastic composites. Courtesy Gordon Murray
The racing car designer Gordon Murray has built a prototype called the T.25, a three-seater car made from lightweight plastic composites. Courtesy Gordon Murray

In the drive to cut fuel consumption, car makers are increasingly switching to lightweight plastics and adhesives in place of welded metal.

The big question is whether todays's leading vehicle manufacturers in the West can change from being a steel-based industry in time.

If they are too slow, they risk losing their technological lead to manufacturers from developing regions.

According to the German adhesives company Henkel, which also supplies the aerospace industry, car makers have already begun to replace traditional material with adhesives and even plastics.

"We supply Porsche and other leading car makers with adhesives that are strong enough to be used in the engine itself," says the Henkel spokesman Holger Elfes.

He adds that the car industry is also starting to experiment with plastic car bodies.

"Plastics are the way of the future owing to their light weight and the fact that they are stronger and safer than traditional automobiles," adds Mr Elfes.

The concept of plastic cars is as old as the car industry itself. Henry Ford spent more than a decade researching and building a plastic prototype of the historic Model-T.

According to Popular Mechanics magazine in the United States, Ford's first Model-T automobile was made from hemp-based plastic panels with an impact strength tested to be 10 times stronger than steel. Ford was photographed among his hemp fields and there is even filmed evidence of the plastic car being strength-tested by men wielding sledgehammers.

But Ford's plastic cars became an early casualty in America's long and hard-fought war on drugs. The ground-breaking technology is thought to have been abandoned because of the increasingly bad press surrounding hemp owing to its botanical association with the full-flowering marijuana plant that is used to make the drug cannabis.

Restrictions on the sale of cannabis in the US began as early as 1906 in some states and outright prohibition started in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state.

Since then, other car makers have experimented with plastic cars.

The former East German manufacturer Trabant produced plastic cars in an attempt to increase domestic car production and keep pace with western vehicle builders.

"The Trabant cars were very ugly and, like every other Communist car, could never have had a wide appeal to western consumers," says Mr Elfes.

During the Cold War, Communist car makers firmly believed the adoption of plastics would enable them to take the lead over western manufacturers. But as with other Communist products, consumer appeal was limited.

"Actually we've had plastic cars before the Trabant, a plastic-bodied car out of the USSR was horrid and the Saturn cars [a subsidiary of General Motors that closed in 2009] were originally plastic-bodied and could throw off dings and dents far better [than rival technologies] but they were also kind of ugly," says Rob Enderle, the principle analyst at Silicon Valley-based Enderle Group.

"This was not the fault of the plastics but of the design."

But today's plastic cars are a far cry from those designed by Cold War Communist committees and many industry watchers are now saying that they are very much on the motor industry's road map.

According to a market research report published by MarketsandMarkets, the global plastic car industry is expected to more than double from US$21.6 billion last year to $46.11bn by 2018.

And although this still represents only a drop in the global auto industry ocean, the companies designing the new vehicles believe plastics will come to dominate the industry throughout the first half of the 21st Century, 10 decades after Ford made the worlds first mass-production intended prototype plastic car.

The racing car designer Gordon Murray, who has previously helped to design cars for McLaren, Mercedes and Aston Martin, has designed and built a prototype called the T.25, a three-seater car made from lightweight plastic composites.

The T.25 excelled when tested against other comparable vehicles as its lightweight design enables it to return 80 miles per gallon. In a 2010 race, it beat half of the electric cars and all of the diesel cars in terms of mileage. The start-up car maker, Gordon Murray Designs, was part-funded by Mohr Davidow Ventures.

Another innovative vehicle maker, Bright Automotive based in the US, has received funding from General Motors and is working on lightweight delivery lorries.

In addition to saving fuel, the new breed of lightweight cars is also far cheaper to produce than steel vehicles.

The T.25 has new software, iStream, that cuts costs for equipping a production line for new models from about €500 million to approximately €10m. Gordon Murray Designs has also built a prototype lightweight electric car, the T.27, which has been funded in part by the UK government.

There is also an obvious synergy between the new breed of electric "smart" car and lightweight plastics and adhesives. Lower production costs would give companies such as the electric car maker Tesla and the tech giant Google the opportunity to produce a new breed of 21st century car at a lower price than traditional vehicles.

Cost has so far been the main stumbling block to the adoption of the software-driven vehicles. While it may still be problematic to recharge electric cars on long journeys, advances made in the energy industry could soon help to tackle the issue.

When combined with reduced energy consumption from the use of lightweight materials, innovations such as solar-panel garage roofs as a source of car-battery charging may start to be increasingly deployed.

Another advantage the new generation of car makers has over the traditional car giants is that lightweight plastic cars can more easily be retooled and refitted to incorporate the latest digital technology.

Even traditional car makers are increasingly realising that 21st Century drivers want more from their cars than mere transport. Digital windscreens, high-speed wireless internet connections and "smart" dashboards are transforming cars into virtual digital entertainment hubs.

Google is also working on perfecting self-drive cars which allow the driver simply to state their destination before kicking back to access Facebook or watch a digital movie.

Volkswagen recently launched a new Apple-friendly version of its Beetle range of cars. Unveiled this year at the Shanghai Auto Show, the iBeetle has a unique docking station for the iPhone on the dashboard.

But for those motorists who do not wish to be forced into buying a new car every time they upgrade their smartphone, plastics technology offers a potential opportunity to install new software and replace in-car features such as digital dashboards at an affordable cost.

The trillion-dollar question now facing the car industry is whether traditional manufacturers can be fast enough in replacing their traditional high-cost methods of manufacture with new and less expensive manufacturing technologies and materials.

"I'd expect a company like Tesla to be where we'll see this go big first and it may be one of the last chances we have to keep the industry from moving to China," says Mr Enderle.