To satisfy car buyers' tastes, automakers have been busily developing ways to squeeze more miles out of a gallon of gas. In addition to better engine design, an often overlooked transformation has led to increased fuel efficiency: more and more, automakers are replacing heavier materials with lighter-weight plastics.
Generally known as "lightweighting," reducing a car's weight minimizes the load on the engine, so it needs less fuel. Replacing traditional materials with plastics has contributed significantly to lightweighting, so much so that experts estimate plastics make up 50 percent of today's automobiles by volume - but only 10 percent by weight. This progression toward plastics occurred over many decades, as cars also became generally more reliable, safer and better designed.
So if roughly half of today's car is made with plastics - where is all this stuff? This trend is probably most readily apparent inside the car. Other than windows and perhaps leather seats, nearly everything a driver or passenger sees and touches is made with plastics: the ceiling, visors, dashboard, instrument panel, door panels, carpeting, seat fabrics and cushions, seat belts, air bags ... the list goes on. It may be less obvious on the exterior, but today's bumpers, quarter panels, headlights, taillights, grills, spoilers, running boards, and some other parts are generally made with plastics - or are rapidly headed in that direction. And take a look under the hood: a plethora of hoses and housings are made with plastics.
Flexibility, transparency, strength, lower weight - a wide range of properties led the automakers' shift toward plastics. And the development of advanced plastics with special properties - such as shatter-, heat-, and corrosion-resistance - is leading to even greater inroads in vehicles. For example, polycarbonate plastic is emerging as an alternative to glass. Nearly unbreakable, this plastic has long been used in race cars because it's less likely to shatter in a crash, and it also reduces the weight of the car to help improve speed. Some carmakers today use polycarbonate for sunroofs and other windows to shave off unneeded pounds.
Lightweighting, and the resulting increase in fuel efficiency, contributes not only to the car owner's bottom line but also to a lighter environmental footprint. Better gas mileage saves money at the pump, and cutting fuel consumption can reduce a car's CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the impacts associated with energy production itself. Lightweighting contributes significantly to the efficiency of hybrid and electric vehicles, too.
Some automakers are taking further steps toward sustainability by using recycled plastics in their vehicles. For example, one major automaker is recycling an estimated 2 million plastic bottles into fabric for car upholstery. Car designers also have begun using plastics sourced partially from plants, such as the plastic foam in some seat cushions.
With federal regulations requiring an increase in fuel economy to nearly 55 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2025, automakers must continue to seek ways to do more with less. More technological advancements, more safety features, more fuel efficiency. And less weight. To meet these goals, many experts predict even wider-scale adoption of plastics in future models - including plastic composites in the chassis and engine - leading to ultra-lightweight cars with better gas mileage and lower emissions than ever before. That's good news for the car owner's wallet and the environment. For more on the use of plastics in automobiles, visit www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com.