New technologies mean lighter, more efficient cars

ElectriPlast at the forefront of the conductive plastics movement.

By Susan Randazzo

PHILADELPHIA: With everyone from leading members of the medical profession, to TV fitness personalities, to a certain big city mayor weighing in with their prescriptions, the so-called “American Obesity Epidemic” has for some time now weighed heavy on the popular psyche. So prevalent is our inclination toward excess, it seems, that our hunger for more of everything cannot be contained by elastic waistbands. We’re making our cars fat too.

While it’s true that the “boats” – those four-wheeled behemoths that patrolled America’s highways and byways until the oil crisis of the 1970s – are now artifacts of a bygone era, we’re still finding ways to pack on the automotive pounds. Whether it’s cars or calories, Americans have always wanted to have their Bluetooth-ready cake and eat it too. Even as the cost of filling up the tank has risen to levels unthinkable just over a decade ago, manufacturers have been adding weight by larding up even standard models with on-board GPS systems, hands-free phone consoles, and DVD monitors wherever they can be stuck into a seatback or steering column.

But much like an overtaxed pair of pants, things fall apart; soon, the boats’ gas-guzzling, gadget- laden SUV progeny may be permanently dry-docked as well. Now that gas prices have been lingering at around $4.00/gallon for years, consumers and regulators are demanding better fuel efficiency from cars. For auto manufacturers, this means finding cost-effective ways to make vehicles shed pounds.

Finally, however, a trend in favor of lighter and more streamlined vehicles may be taking hold. The Economist reported recently that European car makers like Volkswagen and Peugeot are stripping marginal mass and length from new models. In the U.S., forthcoming E.P.A. emissions regulations will likely exert a similar pressure on manufacturers to build lighter vehicles. And, in a strained global economy, the promise of fewer trips to the gas station is becoming an increasingly relevant selling point to new car buyers. According to the E.P.A., a vehicle’s fuel efficiency improves by between 1 and 2 percentage points for every 100 pounds of reduction in total weight. Controlling for gas prices at $4.00 gallon, this means a savings of approximately $44.00 for each 100 pounds lost.

The move toward a permanent industry-wide shift to lightweight cars may be motivated by consumer demand and agency regulation, but its success will be driven by innovative technologies that are just now coming to market. Steel and similar heavy composites had long been the mainstay of the automotive industry because they are relatively cheap, sturdy, and consequently, an important component of a car’s overall safety profile.

While a number of high-end auto concerns like BMW have been investing in carbon fiber structures, and Jaguar has made major advances with the use of aluminum in body construction, a big share of the potential for vehicle weight reduction is likely to be in the parts of a car that we don’t actually see. For example, some car makers are now exploring new applications that would allow for the replacement of heavier metal electrical components with conductive plastics.

At the forefront of the conductive plastics movement is Philadelphia-based ElectriPlast Corporation, a subsidiary of Integral Technologies of Bellingham, WA. The ElectriPlast line of electrically conductive, non-corrosive resins are designed to be molded into a limitless variety of shapes and sizes as a replacement for the heavier metal. The resin technology, which was originally developed for use in the low orbital satellite industry, claims to reduce conductive component weight by 40 to 60% versus conventional metal components. In recognition of its creation of this technology, Integral recently received the “Disruptive Innovation Award” given by the Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management and Fox School of Business.

ElectriPlast has already entered the automotive space, supplying its high-voltage connectors for Anaheim, California-based Fisker’s new Karma electric luxury sedan, the world’s first “premium plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.” It may seem like a big jump from satellites to sedans, but according to Integral Technologies CEO Doug Bathauer, “even as we initially developed this technology, its tremendous potential for the automotive industry seemed self-evident. I don’t’ think it’s too hyperbolic to suggest that we’re looking to be the Jenny Craig of industrial lightweighting and shielding.”

And it’s not just the Western high-end automotive sector that’s taking notice of this sort of groundbreaking technology. The potential for wide-scale adoption of conductive plastics by the Asian car industry is likely to bring with it added pressure on global manufacturers to incorporate similar innovations to decrease hydrocarbon dependency.

Common sense dictates that the responsibility for reducing car weight and thereby improving fuel efficiency – that highly marketable MPG score – can’t be borne entirely by the supply side. A quick inventory of the trunk of the average American automobile will reveal a hefty hodgepodge of junk that weighs heavy on the gas and heavy on the wallet. Simply clearing the ballast out of the back can lead to noticeable gains in efficiency, as can other do-it-yourself fixes like keeping the tank only half full, and (with a plan B and an appetite for risk) jettisoning the spare tire.

While there is much that consumers can do to counteract the rising scarcity and concomitant high prices of fossil fuels, a big and irreversible change in the way manufacturers approach this issue is well underway. Consequently, it seems that the market for products like Integral’s ElectricPlast and other disruptive, lightweight technologies will only keep growing as our cars get leaner. (Global India Newswire)

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