Plastics at the heart of the cars of today and the revolutions of tomorrow
All eyes on the battery
Switching from combustion engines to 100% electric propulsion or hybrid solutions … In response to new regulatory constraints and traffic restriction measures implemented by some major cities, manufacturers have no other choice but to innovate in terms of alternative propulsion systems. Around the world, increasing numbers of announcements are made regarding the launch of new electric cars. The battery is a subject of intensive research for all manufacturers. The current challenge is to further improve the performance of this heavy and complex object, to reduce its weight and size, while reducing its price. Current technologies under development include the “all-solid” lithium metal polymer battery which seems particularly promising.
New products for new uses…
Private cars with drivers, instant short-distance rentals, carpooling, car sharing… The times have called for new forms of urban mobility and new uses. In 2011, Paris launched the Autolib, the first public service of public self-service electric cars, developed at the scale of a major European city, by using the Bluecar, developed by Bolloré, with its technology of “dry” lithium-metal-polymer batteries. Although they have not yet affected current automotive production, these new uses will have a direct impact on some of the vehicles’ components. New polymers will appear to help manufacturers devise new solutions to these new requirements
Clean air and a new era
To reduce their polluting emissions, the cars of tomorrow using combustion engines will have engines with an increasingly smaller cubic capacity (“downsizing”), although their performance should remain the same. This evolution will lead to the creation of engine compartments that are even more resistant to heat, pressure and thermal and mechanical stresses. Automotive industry manufacturers and equipment manufacturers are seeking to develop high-tech materials for these new clean cars. Switching from gasoline propulsion to electric propulsion also requires sweeping changes to vehicle design. To integrate the parts required for electrification (motors, batteries), manufacturers are using plastics to create structural parts in order to reduce weight and optimise the weight/power ratio.
Keep in touch
Shared cars have led car manufacturers to reconsider their requirements for materials: Many users, frequently manipulated parts on the inside and the outside etc., The impact of car sharing will lead to the use of new materials and new coverings made from polymers in order to attempt to preserve a healthy environment in the passenger compartment. Insulating polymers could also play a role in ensuring the vehicles’ electromagnetic compliance or effectively participate in preventing attempts to pirate on-board data. Plastics can already be used to design parts of the body or trim that can limit the risk of accidental scratches and that are easy to clean: self-cleaning paints, fluorinated Teflon/PTFE coverings on the seat fabrics and carpets, antimicrobial and anti-allergenic fabrics, etc.
Plastronics: intra-material intelligence
Before becoming entirely autonomous, the cars of tomorrow will be connected for the purpose of controlling its systems (driving assistance systems, sensors, electronic gearboxes, etc.) and communicating with the outside world (GPS, Wi-Fi, telephony, etc.). This new discipline, whose processes are extremely innovative, is halfway between plasturgy and electronics and aims to bring intelligence to the plastics parts of man/machine interfaces. Its principle: doing away with circuit boards and integrating their functions directly into the plastic parts. Plastronics is already gaining increasing success for manufacture of the circuit boards and the many electronic components that are increasingly found in connected cars. Its simplicity has conquered manufacturers: gone are the days of screwing in circuit boards and soldering cables to connect the circuit board to the gearbox.
The reduced number of assembly operations also reduces the risk of spoiled castings. In the automotive industry, BMW paved the way by equipping its steering wheels with parts from the plastronics industry. Following a conclusive test, the manufacturer began considering the possibility of customising its steering wheels by equipping them with various options. The German manufacturer was one of the first to bet on plastronics with the turn signal switches of its K1300R and K1300S motorbikes. Currently mass-produced, a single plastic part located next to the handle now activates the horn, the turn signals and the starter. The laser’s patch can then be changed to customise the turn signal switch’s function depending on the country or the options selected by the customer.
A factory of ideas!
Vehicles able to fully autonomously drive its occupants from point A to B without assistance are not likely to appear before 2025/2030. However, driving assistance devices are already making vehicle partially autonomous under certain conditions, in particular on motorways and while parking. Mercedes Benz and Volvo are among the leading manufacturers in this area. However, all manufacturers are working towards designing new passenger compartments. In Munich, BMW’s R&D teams are working on solutions enabling drivers to use their time more efficiently while stuck in traffic jams.
To reduce their polluting emissions, the cars of tomorrow using combustion engines will have engines with an increasingly smaller cubic capacity (“downsizing”), although their performance should remain the same. This evolution will lead to the creation of engine compartments that are even more resistant to heat, pressure and thermal and mechanical stresses. Automotive industry manufacturers and equipment manufacturers are seeking to develop high-tech materials for these new clean cars. Switching from gasoline propulsion to electric propulsion also requires sweeping changes to vehicle design. To integrate the parts required for electrification (motors, batteries), manufacturers are using plastics to create structural parts in order to reduce weight and optimise the weight/power ratio
When will we see flying cars?
This is the question that has been occupying the mind of Sebastien Thrun, Professor at Stanford, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and formerly of Darpa (the U.S. Army’s research section). A pioneer in research & development relating to self-driving and flying cars (in particular through his work on the Google Car), he has now become a pioneer as regards training the drivers of tomorrow. Since March 2018, Sebastien Thrun has started offering flying car driving lessons via the Udacity platform. The participants can receive training on drone robotics, learn to code flying car and aircraft piloting software, and practice driving through a flight simulator. After the flying taxi of German start-up e-Volo completed a conclusive test flight at the last CES in Las Vegas, Uber is now giving serious thought to creating a fleet of flying vehicles, and Airbus was able to keep its electric aircraft, Vahana, in the air for 53 seconds after only two years of R&D.