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Report: Future of lightweighting may mean more plastic

Automakers continue to push ahead with lightweighting strategies to meet 2025 CAFE standards, even as the political climate in the US puts the future of those standards in doubt.
Wilmington, Delaware — September 4, 2017 — Plastic may be on its way up and multi-material construction may be less popular in the future, according to a survey conducted by Ward’s Auto. The seventh annual Ward’s Automotive Trends survey suggests that automakers are moving forward with numerous strategies to reduce vehicle weights and improve fuel efficiency in advanced of the 2025 implementation of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the US. 
 
However, the future of those standards looks uncertain, given the current political climate in the United States. This was echoed in the Ward’s Auto survey. Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents said they expect the standards will become less stringent. By contrast, in 2016, 86 percent of respondents said they expected the standards would strengthen or remain the same.
 
The annual survey was sponsored by DuPont and conducted by Penton Market Research. Penton polled nearly 750 automotive sector employees, including respondents with expertise within the engineering, design, manufacturing, marketing, sales and corporate segments.
 
The 2017 Ward’s Auto survey found that lightweighting and the use of lightweight structural materials continue to lead the list of technologies respondents are most focused on to meet the 2025 CAFE standards. Engine efficiency programs came in second. Vehicle electrification technologies came in third (mild hybrid/start/stop) and fourth (full hybrid/plug-ins) respectively, both demonstrating slight gains over 2016.
 
Though aluminum remains the most-cited material choice for meeting the 2025 CAFE standards, automakers have sharpened their focus on engineering plastics as a lightweighting tool, which increased by 5 percentage points year-over-year—the single-largest increase in material choices versus 2016—while interest in multi-material solutions retreated by 4 percentage points. Advanced composites like continuous fibre and carbon fibre took fifth place, behind advanced, high-strength steel.
 
“In addition to enabling innovations in passenger safety, comfort and convenience, plastics have been delivering lightweighting solutions for more than 30 years,” said Brian Fish, North American Automotive Marketing Manager for DuPont Performance Materials. “The newer emerging technologies like advanced composites hold promise. However, by engaging material suppliers early in the design process, there are still many opportunities for lightweighting with existing materials.”
 
The survey spotlighted another change worth noting: the rise in vehicle interiors as a lightweighting target, interest in which practically doubled year over year. OEMs are introducing creative lightweighting solutions to help differentiate vehicle interiors, contributing to passenger safety and comfort and improving utilization of space through the use of new materials in these critical areas.
 
For the first time this year, the survey asked respondents whether the push for autonomous vehicles was impacting their R&D spending. Nearly half of respondents reported that autonomous vehicle research has negatively impacted other areas of research and development spending.
 
“Autonomy is a critical new area that holds great promise for passenger safety and convenience, and appropriately, the industry is investing heavily into advancing this technology,” said Fish. “But as the industry spreads its available R&D resources into autonomy, investment in lightweighting solutions and new materials technologies like advanced composites is challenged.”
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