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October 31st, 2014

Improving automobile fuel efficiency – with plastics

While most Americans know that drastically improving automobile fuel efficiency will reduce gasoline consumption and tailpipe emissions, it may be less clear how today’s cars and trucks are evolving to make that happen.

The U.S. government recently announced stringent new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards: the nation’s cars and light trucks must average a whopping 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The standards not only will help reduce auto emissions, but they also could save some serious cash at the pump.

So how will automakers meet these goals? Through more aerodynamic design, improved engine efficiency – and a greater reliance on plastics. That’s right, plastics.

Perhaps unnoticed by most drivers, automakers over the past few decades have dramatically increased the use of tough, lightweight plastics, displacing heavier materials. Due to their positive strength-to-weight ratio, plastics make up an astonishing 50 percent of today’s cars by volume, but only 10 percent by weight. This “lightweighting” results in less strain on the engine and improved gas mileage. In other words, more plastics lead to less fuel use.

And lucky for drivers and passengers, lightweight plastics also play an integral role in many auto safety features: seat belts, air bags, interior cushioning, crumple zones and bumpers, to name a few.

And that’s just the beginning. To satisfy CAFE standards – and Americans who still want large cars – automakers are expected to turn even more toward using plastics throughout more of the car, including innovations in plastic “composite” materials.

Composites combine plastics with glass fibers, carbon fibers or other materials to create car parts that often are stronger and lighter than metals, as well as corrosion-resistant. Composites already are in use today on some high-end vehicles, such as the Corvette Stingray with its sleek carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic hood and roof.

And recent manufacturing breakthroughs are projected to catapult carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics into the mainstream, along with similar tough, lightweight composites, by speeding production time and reducing costs. The U.S. government, auto companies and plastics makers are investing heavily in this technology, so these composites should soon make their way into the cars Americans drive every day.

Many experts predict even broader applications of plastics in future models – including plastic composites in the chassis and engine – leading to ultra-lightweight cars with even better gas mileage and lower emissions.

While all these new cars may not look as cool as the Corvette Stingray, averaging 54.5 miles per gallon will reduce auto emissions dramatically, and allow American drivers to spend a whole lot less at the pump.

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