Kathie Atkinson focuses on advances in materials to address two strategic priorities for the automotive industry: sustainability and the in-vehicle experience
The automotive industry is in the midst of a technological revolution characterised by the convergence of new digital technologies with traditional car manufacture. Most of the major industry players are investing in technologies to develop cars that are autonomous, connected, electric and enable shared mobility (ACES).
At present, the automotive industry is the third biggest spender on research and development, behind healthcare and software and electronics.
The most competitive automotive manufacturers are aware of the potential of materials engineering in achieving their key objectives.
In the future, these companies are likely to use technologies from fields such as machine learning to rapidly identify candidate materials with suitable properties and accelerate materials research.
For now, automotive design engineers are among the leading adopters of digital material comparison platforms, such as Matmatch, to specify and source materials.
Car travel currently represents about 12% of the total carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union. In 2009, the European Parliament and Council adopted Regulation (EC) 43/2009, which sets out mandatory emission reduction targets for new cars.
To meet emissions targets and enhance the sustainability of future vehicles, mass reduction of vehicles (light weighting) is increasingly emerging as the top challenge facing automotive engineers. Not only do vehicles of lower mass achieve better fuel efficiency, but they also offer better acceleration, braking and handling.
For decades, most vehicles have been made with steel bodies due to steel’s relatively low cost, strength and malleability. New vehicles are increasingly incorporating high-strength steels, aluminium, carbon-fibre composites, magnesium, titanium, various types of plastics and even natural materials such as hemp, cotton, linen and flax.
As an example, the weight-bearing body structure of the new Audi A8 incorporates aluminium, steel, magnesium alloys and carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP). The largest component in the occupant cell of the Audi A8 is an ultra-high-strength and torsion ally rigid rear panel made of CFRP.
Carbon fibre is one of the most promising lightweight materials available for body structures. However, due to the prohibitive cost of carbon fibre, which is five to six times the cost of steel, and the challenges in recycling this material, its market penetration is likely to remain limited in the near future.
At present, car interiors are predominantly made of plastic. Fortune Business Insights estimated that the automotive plastics market was valued at USD 38.8 Billion in 2018. This figure is projected to rise to USD 59.95 Billion by 2026.
Although the use of plastics in ‘under the bonnet’ and exterior applications is on the rise, the car interior currently represents the main use of automotive plastics and is likely to continue to do so in the future. Due to their durability, aesthetic appeal, low density and chemical resistance, polymer combinations are used in wide-ranging applications including seats, door panels, upholstery and instrument panels.
While it is likely that plastics will continue to be an important component of the material strategy for the car of the future, many manufacturers are increasingly striving to incorporate natural fibres into their materials strategy.
In recent years, car seats have become a focus for lightweighting of car interiors. The driver’s seat is one of the heaviest parts of a vehicle’s interior because it must be ergonomic, adjustable and should protect the driver in the event of an accident.
Numerous manufacturers are developing multi-material seating systems incorporating CFRP. CFRP is also increasingly prevalent in other car interior applications including panels, boot lids and instrument dashboards. The most significant advantages of CFRP for use in car interiors are its high strength-to-weight ratio, ability to be worked into complex shapes, and corrosion resistance.
In summary, the automotive industry is on the verge of an unprecedented transformation characterised by autonomous driving, electrification and an ever-increasing demand for personalised products that enhance the wellbeing of occupants.
Advances and innovation in materials engineering will be key to the adaptability and success of automotive manufacturers in this competitive and evolving landscape.
Kathie Atkinson is guest author at materials database Matmatch.