The automotive industry is undergoing its biggest revolution in 100 years with the rise of electric and hybrid vehicles. Governments around the world have adopted policies that promote electric vehicles as part of their sustainability efforts, even mandating their implementation in the decades ahead. As the industry continues to adapt, plastics are uniquely positioned to move this revolution forward.
Plastics have played a long-standing and important role in supporting automotive innovation, particularly by making it possible for cars to become more fuel efficient and reduce their environmental impact. Traditional automotive materials like metal are rigid and heavy, but plastics enable flexibility in design, meeting increased safety standards and providing aesthetic options while keeping the vehicle lightweight. When designed properly, reinforced plastics can provide equivalent strength and stability to metal. This malleability makes plastics an ideal material for vehicles.
When we look to the future of electric vehicles, plastics will continue to be crucial in driving the automotive industry forward, including meeting the specific needs of electric vehicles for high durability and sustainable materials that produce little or no noise.
Overcoming noise and vibration challenges
A common challenge with today’s automobiles is excess noise and squeaking resulting from components made from plastics and other materials rubbing together. Manufacturers currently address these issues after a car has been assembled by manually inserting felt between plastic parts that squeak, but electric vehicles provide a new opportunity to explore material adaptability.
Electric vehicles produce significantly less noise outside the car than current combustion engines, and drivers and passengers expect a similar level of silence inside. Without exterior noise to muffle squeaking and other noise from materials rubbing together, the current manual process for addressing these excess sounds is falling short. That is why noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) products are being used to help address squeaking.
Also known as anti-squeak or products with reduced buzz, squeak, rattle (BSR), these materials are designed to minimize squeaking at the source — thus, significantly reducing, and potentially even eliminating, the need to manually address friction-related noise after vehicle assembly. In the last five years, there has been a rise in demand from industry manufacturers for NVH products to reduce the time and expense associated with applying post-production felt fixtures.
Recently, it has been shown that polymers like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) can be modified to minimize excess sounds while retaining the same performance properties, which is key for these materials in the final application. Manufacturers cannot sacrifice performance properties for anti-squeak adjustments. As the industry continues to embrace plastics for automotive use, NVH has the potential to save the vehicle industry time and money — but only if these polymers can maintain essential performance properties.
Increasing durability and longevity
Beyond NVH, durability and adaptability also are important properties that need to be improved as plastics increase in the share of vehicle materials. Materials like PMMA already play a vital role in the function of a vehicle and continue to be key to future features. This transparent, scratch-resistant, and UV-transparent plastic is frequently used in rear lighting to cover backup cameras, blind spot sensors, and other sensitive areas that could give false readings if damaged. The ability for PMMA to be backlit will make it useful in future fenders and roof rail designs.
Another durable material that will impact innovation is polycarbonate (PC). When combined with ABS, PC remains ductile at low temperatures, making it perfect for use in safety critical parts for crash performance. Materials like PMMA and PC are designed to ensure maximum performance while achieving the overall design and technological goals.
Making electric vehicles even more sustainable
Sustainability has become a central driver for innovation and the future of the automotive industry. The rise of electric vehicles has been predicated on its lower environmental impact compared to vehicles that run on fossil fuels. However, studies by leading car manufacturers show that approximately 30% of a vehicle’s lifetime CO2 emissions are generated by its materials and production. Consequently, the automotive industry must focus on increasing the sustainability of the materials used in these vehicles and on optimizing manufacturing processes.
To achieve this, the lifecycle of a vehicle needs to be present in industry development. Manufacturers need to start thinking about circular pathways for automotive plastics and how materials can best be integrated from end-of-life vehicles into new models to make the industry more sustainable. Through the newest plastic recycling technologies, end-of-life automotive materials could be processed and reused, while meeting the same quality standards as virgin materials. By investing in the reuse of these materials, the industry can create a circular pathway without compromising quality.
Plastics will continue to be central to the future of the automotive industry, and they will evolve as the automotive industry evolves. New types of materials will enable manufacturers to meet consumer demands for electric vehicles; however, they must not compromise on the performance and durability properties. This is an exciting time for the automotive industry, as demand drives car and materials manufacturers to innovate for the future.
Mike Hale is Global Plastics Technology Director at Trinseo, a global materials solutions provider and a manufacturer of plastics, latex binders, and synthetic rubber. He has worked at Trinseo for 11 years and specializes in the fabrication and innovation of polymers. Prior to joining Trinseo, he worked at Dow Chemical for more than 20 years. Hale holds a degree in polymer science and technology from the University of Manchester. He can be found on LinkedIn.