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MOTORING: Plastics are the future of cars

Kampala, Uganda | AGENCIES | From high-end sports cars to your everyday minivan, plastics have revolutionised the automotive industry. Some of the newest, most cutting-edge vehicles can give a glimpse at how plastics will continue to “drive” future automotive innovation.

These vehicles represent significant advances in manufacturing, safety, design, performance, and fuel efficiency, and they all have something in common: advanced plastics.

Manufacturing

Not so long ago, plastics inspired automakers to rethink the materials they use for their vehicles—and now, plastics are actually bringing about the evolution of the manufacturing process itself. Plastics are well suited for 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing), a process in which layer upon layer of material is built up to form an object—a car part, in this instance. This process can create less waste than traditional manufacturing techniques that strip away material from a larger piece. Plus, it gives manufacturers the flexibility to produce more creative or custom designs.

Vehicle Design and Performance

Advanced plastics also help enable innovations in vehicle design and performance. For the Chevy 2017 Corvette Z06, the automaker created an aesthetic that’s distinctively bold and super sleek, employing unique design elements that use durable plastics molded into the body of the vehicle. Looking for a performance boost to go with that stylish design? Rest assured: plastics help make this car lightweight and aerodynamic, which contributes to improved speed and handling.

Another example: designers of the Cadillac CT6 created its hood, splitter, and wheel spats using CFRP, high-performance materials with truly exceptional strength-to-weight ratios. Not only are these design elements very cool-looking and super lightweight, but they actually enhance the performance of the vehicle; the splitter, for example, forces low-pressure air underneath the car to maintain traction at high speeds. Some car companies also make spoilers and air dams, which are designed to help performance, with CFRP.

Fuel Efficiency

Modern, fuel-efficient cars have come a long way since the heavy gas-guzzlers your parents or grandparents drove. Among other reasons, that’s because heavier materials are being replaced with lightweight and durable plastics, so much so that today’s vehicles are comprised of approximately 50 percent plastics by volume but only 10 percent plastics by weight. Automakers are increasingly “lightweighting” their vehicles by using innovative plastics and plastic composites such as CFRP, helping them meet fuel-efficiency goals while also enhancing performance and safety.

A couple of very high-performance examples displayed at the LA Auto Show: the front splitter and rear diffuser in the stylish Aston Martin Vanquish S. These lightweight, aerodynamic components help improve fuel efficiency, leading to more miles with less fuel while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

So … advanced plastics = improved fuel efficiency and performance. It’s a win-win-win-win-win. As Ford Motor Company said: “Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities—acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency—can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.”

The Road Ahead

Not so long ago, technologies such as 3-D printing, self-driving vehicles, and super-lightweight, aerodynamic car parts might have seemed a bit like science fiction. But thanks to advanced plastics, your custom 3-D printed car—or maybe your first ride in a fully autonomous public transit vehicle—may be closer than you think.

For more than half a century, plastics have enabled automakers to dream up amazing new technologies and bring them to life. We can only imagine what automotive innovations the next half century will usher in, but one thing’s for sure: plastics will continue to make many of them possible.

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