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Plastic Cars

December, 2007

Houston's petrochemical industry stands to increase business due to recent updates increasing mileage standards in the fuel laws. In order to meet the requirements, auto manufacturers will have to develop more efficient engine technologies, and reduce overall vehicle weight, a shift that will open the door for lighter materials including plastics. Houston area (Baytown Texas, Freeport Texas, Seadrift Texas and LaPorte Texas) Chemical plants produce many of the raw plastics that already are being used to make vehicle components and will be instrumental in meeting auto maker needs and the updated industry standards. The Southeast Texas Chemical Refineries in and around the Houston Texas area maintain more than 1/3rd of the nation's capacity for plastic resin production including Polyethylene (aka PET, PETE or the obsolete PETP or PET-P), Polypropylene, or polypropene (PP), and Polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

The new energy legislation requirements raise the federal standards that automakers must meet to an average of 35 miles per gallon for cars, sport utility vehicles (SUV'S) and small (1/2 ton or less) trucks. This relates to an average increase of 8 - 13 miles per gallon, up from the current standard of 27 miles per gallon for cars and 22 miles per gallon for trucks and SUV's.

While this could result in big business for the plastics manufacturing industry, the increased fuel mileage laws signed by President Bush in December 2007, does mean that auto manufacturers will have to adjust the way many car parts are designed. In order to fully comply with the new fuel economy legislation by 2020, vehicles will need to reduce GVW by an average of 30% and recent advances in the strength and design flexibility of plastics are expected to be of major importance. Yet, while chemical companies may see this as an opportunity, consumers should be aware of the strength limits in plastics and other lightweight materials and what the effects are when it comes to safety and vehicle costs.

Plastic auto parts are not new as many components which were originally made of metal, have already have replaced by a plastic counterpart. A few examples are some parts of bumpers (Polypropylene), cooling fans, door and window handles, fuel tanks (polyethylene), and many components that are concealed behind the dashboard and under the hood. According to the American Chemistry Council, the average car's gross vehicle weight (GVW), includes just over 330 pounds of plastics and similar compounds, approximately 8 percent of the GVW.

The plastics industry has an answer to the misconception that reducing the weight of cars could leads to more fatalities in collisions. While plastics don't offer the same protection of steel, they more easily lose any perpetual energy which carries a vehicle further in a collision.
An example would be that polyethylene fuel tanks, which can weigh as much as 30 percent less than comparable steel tanks are safer because during a collision, they wouldn't create sparks. A polyethylene tank would more easily transform in shape without reducing their size and thereby potentially raising the pressure of any fuel within the tanks. Polypropylene vehicle bumpers are advantageous because they not only reduce weight, but they can absorb the energy of a (minor) collision and then regain their original shape.

Smaller cars don't offer the same overall protection as a larger vehicle would which can be a major concern during a collision but many auto manufacturers are improving safety with additional airbags, anti-lock brakes, carbon fiber components, and even heads up displays. While it is widely agreed that future cars and trucks may become lighter and smaller in response to higher fuel costs and the new fuel mileage requirements, auto manufacturers are not expected to cut corners on safety or performance. Most representatives and consumers alike are less optimistic when it comes to potential increases in sticker price. The new fuel efficiency requirements are expected to save drivers in the long run with a projected savings of $22 billion USD by 2020. This number of course is only estimated, as the next decade of technological improvements have yet to be discovered. Improvements in electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, alternative fuels (biofuel), and even cars that run on compressed air are being developed and improved right now.

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