Plastics Driving Advances in Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

Widescreen displays and a minimally obstructed view outside will be a feature of the next generation of electric and autonomous vehicles. Image courtesy of Byton.

There’s a common misconception in the industry that electric vehicles, having fewer components, in particular moving ones, are easier to design and build and, thus, the entry barriers to this market segment are a lot lower than they are for traditional internal combustion engine-powered vehicles. After all, anyone can buy some batteries and motors and connect them up, cooling is super easy so you don’t need any front-facing air intakes, and braking is simpler because you can turn the electric motor in reverse to assist in decelerating, right?

Well according to David Twohig, CTO at Chinese start-up EV maker Byton, “EVs are very, very hard to do,” and in fact more challenging to do successfully compared with ICEVs. Having played a key role in the development of the Nissan Leaf and sister vehicle Renault Zoe, debuting in 2010 and 2012, respectively, Twohig has the right to be taken seriously. Byton was co-founded by former BMW and Nissan Motor executives and recently completed a factory in Nanjing with capacity of 300,000 vehicles/year.

Stating his case, Twohig concedes that anyone can buy batteries, but they need to be protected from side impacts such as collisions with poles, as of course do the occupants. And here’s the interesting point—the batteries are more sensitive than the human body, capable of absorbing “only” 60 G of force versus 80 G for the driver or passenger. As such, the implications are substantial for material selection and design of impact zones. Honeycomb structure crush zones constructed from thermoplastic composites may prove a viable solution here given the emphasis on lightweighting. Further lightweighting will be achievable by replacing aluminum or steel used in the top and bottom layers for battery enclosures with carbon fiber- and glass fiber-reinforced composites, the first examples of which are set to debut.

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