Given increasingly stringent legal and regulatory demands on fuel economy, emission control, and vehicle safety, automakers have responded by building lighter, more efficient, and more technologically-sophisticated vehicles over the last few decades. To accomplish this feat, automakers have focused on incorporating more advanced materials, such as high strength steels, lightweight plastics, and non-ferrous alloys into their products.
For example, in an effort to make cars lighter (and, therefore, more efficient), automakers have significantly increased their use of plastics. Today, plastics make up 50 percent of a vehicle’s volume, but only about 10 percent of its weight.
Increased investment in the design and production of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles is driving further demand for advanced materials. While electric vehicles are now powered by lithium-ion batteries, in the future they may be powered by lithium-air batteries, which will be able to store 10 times more energy and will be lighter than lithium-ion batteries.
Not only is the automotive industry incorporating more advanced materials into vehicles, it is also leading the way in research and innovation. For example, according to an article on Marketwatch, “nearly one-fifth of all clean-tech patents since 2011 were granted in the transportation sector, and another 15% in energy storage. Transportation reached a new high of 7,433 patents in 2015 and energy storage hit its all-time high in 2016 with 5,774” patents.
Automakers and their suppliers secured a significant number of clean-tech patents during the years 2011 to 2016. General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Tesla, Toyota, and Delphi all registered more than 100 patents each over the time period, with General Motors and Ford each registering more than 1,400, according to Marketwatch.
Automotive manufacturers and suppliers continue to introduce new advanced materials into the marketplace. Some recent developments include:
- Lightweight Materials. BASF and STR Automotive announced the production of a new lightweight material called Elastolit, which, according to the companies, will lower the weight of short-fiber reinforced polyurethane parts like bumpers without sacrificing structural integrity. According to BASF, “The improved performance of the matrix material allows the designer to create a noticeably thinner component, without having to accept limitations in quality.”
- Plastics Made from Captured Carbon Dioxide Waste Streams. Ford Motor Company recently announced plans to create auto parts using plastics made in part from captured carbon dioxide waste streams. Carbon dioxide will be used to make foam plastics for use in seat cushions, seat backs, floor mats, and other components such as side paneling and consoles.
- Airless Tires. General Motors and Michelin have teamed up to create a new airless tire prototype to replace traditional tires. A process that involved over 50 patents. The new tire is called the Uptis Prototype, which stands for "Unique Puncture-proof Tire System." The tire is intended to eliminate blow outs and flats associated with air-filled tires. As a consequence, it will help the environment, as, according to Michelin, more than 200 million tires are thrown out every year due to damage.
- Invisible Solar Panels. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) recently presented an innovative new technology that allows solar panels to be invisibly integrated into the roofs of electric cars. Adding solar panels to electric cars is intended to significantly increase their range beyond current limitations imposed by batteries.
As the automotive industry transforms to meet changing market, legal and regulatory demands, advanced materials will continue to play an integral role. Advanced materials are key to building the lighter, safer, and more efficient vehicles of the future. Patents ensure efforts are compensated and further incentivize innovation.