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Making light of next gen automotive design

By Anthony Clark
Posted 8 February 2013

Cars in the 21st century need to be light and well designed. The twin challenge was debated at the Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles conference

Design developments in the automotive industry are part of the sector’s lifeblood. Even the briefest look back over the last 100 years of car design will show that incremental change has been essential in the development of ‘this year’s model’.

However, the design paradigms at the heart of the car industry are changing, driven in part by the adoption of new materials, although our altered relationship with four wheels is also playing an important role.

Increasing fuel prices, urban congestion and the overall cost of ownership have all combined to undermine our love affair with the ubiquitous car, especially amongst the generation that would traditionally be expected to provide the new intake of drivers - young people in their 20s.

However, the need for the flexibility offered by personal transport shows little sign of diminishing. So how can the automotive industry adapt to these challenges?

Small and cheap

One set of answers predicts a growth in small, cheap electric vehicles specifically designed for short, urban journeys. However, for this to become a reality there needs to be an adoption of novel materials to help reverse the trend of the last two decades which has seen cars become heavier.

So are lightweight structural plastics about to revolutionise vehicle design? Tony Norton, senior director at software group Altair Engineering, thinks not.

“Straightforward material substitution alone is not as compelling as the opportunity to integrate functionality into a single part in driving the adoption of plastics for structural applications,” he said.

Speaking at the Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles conference held in Cologne in October last year, organised by European Plastics News, he said: “A place where considerable displacement of a metal part has occurred - the door module carrier - is a good example. In this system cable clips, speaker frames, regulator rails and other attachments can now be built into a single part, eliminating complexity while compounding the advantages that a straightforward material ‘swap’ brings - improved design and reduced weight.”

Steve Masterson, a partner at design agency Kiska, sees an operational hurdle that needs to be cleared before there is a wholesale adoption of plastics in vehicle construction.

“Auto manufacturers work with material suppliers, which work together with chemical suppliers. There’s a whole system in place; the factories are set up and nobody is interested in using new materials, such as plastics, in an authentic way,” he said. “They simply replace steel with aluminium and aluminium with plastics and go on constructing cars like they always did.”

Masterson, however, points to external forces that will help shape the car of the future. “If the system in place runs and doesn’t want to be changed, how will there ever be changes? Fortunately, there are socio-economical influences that sometimes force change, such as the EU legislation obliging manufacturers to ensure that their new car fleet does not emit more than an average of 95g [of CO2 per km] by 2020 compared with an average of almost 160g in 2007 and 135.7g in 2011.”

Another conference speaker, Henrik Eriksson, the development manager at Polykemi, the Swedish polymer group, views the process from a slightly different angle. “I believe that a reasonable strategy for reducing weight in future cars will have to involve a sound balance between step changes, represented by functionality integration and mixed material construction, and straightforward material substitution that take advantage of the properties offered by materials that employ the latest in material science.”

Metal replacement

He highlighted substituting polyamide and polyester materials with Polykemi’s glass fibre reinforced PP. Another example is polyamide replacing metal in under-the-hood applications.

In the end it will be consumers that will shape the market, and their desires as much as their needs will act as the agents for change, according to Masterson. But this isn’t an overnight process.

He said: “Shaping desire takes time. It took a long time for the widespread distribution of the mobile phone. Its development began in 1926 with a telephone service in German trains between Hamburg and Berlin.”

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