Insights from BCC Research

Plastics Hold the Key for Auto Makers to Meet CAFE Regs

Posted by Clayton Luz on Mar 30, 2016 6:00:00 AM

The new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations have been the major driving force that stipulates that U.S. automobiles must average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

But don’t expect regulations to be met anytime soon, if at all by 2025. As John O’Dell, senior editor at tells Meg Handley, “Bottom line, that isn't what you're going to see," he says. That's because of the way the government measures fuel economy—in more lab-like, less real-world conditions—so the actual mileage goal is closer to about 36 miles per gallon, he says.
That’s because the regulations refer to the average fuel economy automakers have to meet across a number of models. As Car and Driver’s Csaba Csere notes, “ A guzzler that doesn’t meet the standard can be ‘canceled out’ by one or more vehicles that better the mpg standard. However, the government’s 2016 fuel-economy numbers of 37.8 mpg and 28.8 mpg are projections because, unlike today, when every car and truck fleet must meet the same mandated average, the future requirements will be instead based on the size of each vehicle in a manufacturer’s fleet.”
However the automotive industry endeavors to meet the regulations, the most sensible strategy involves reducing the weight of its cars, says Mel Schlechter, BCC Research analyst.  
The automotive industry has made strides to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. In 2014, half of all vehicles produced had a fuel efficiency of more than 23 mpg, while no
vehicle had less than 13 mpg, he says.
“The industry is moving forward. Its efforts will continue to include more aerodynamic designs, alternative fuel and energy options and lightweighting,” Schlechter explains. However, automakers also must learn that they cannot just “plug and play.” They simply cannot use the same manufacturing processes to build a more fuel-efficient vehicle, he notes.
He says 2015 was a “pretty good year as regards production,” while the research and development emphasis was on lightweighting and emission reductions.  “Clearly, plastics will play a huge role in both of these in the coming years. Lightweighting can play a huge role in terms of engine thermal management as well as increase in the miles per gallon scenario.”
Frank Macher, chairman of Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), tells Automotive World’s Freddie Holmes that vehicle lightweighting has cemented itself as a vital component within the vast majority of vehicle manufacturers’ strategies to meet such targets. While plastics have played a relatively small role in vehicle production for a number of years, Macher believes composite materials will become integral to lightweighting strategies.
“Plastics had virtually no position in vehicles, but now play a significant role in both interior and exterior applications,” he explains. “In the last two to three years, car companies have frequently found that there are applications where plastic and composite materials can play a significant role in the vehicle going forward.”
According to Schlechter, the expected greatest percent of material change as a result of the proposed 2025 CAFÉ standards are powertrain (49%), chassis (22%), exterior (19%), interior (4%), and other (6%).
Schlechter cites a recent survey by Ward’s Automotive that found 24% of respondents have primarily targeted the engine and transmission for weight reduction.
“Clearly, the greatest auto weight reduction will be in the under-the-hood segment since the industry has converted most interiors to lighter plastics,” he says. “There also have been significant weight reductions in exteriors. The heaviest part of autos has always been in engine parts, which are part of the under-the-hood segment.”
The major lightweight options clearly will be based on increased use of plastics, although some within the industry feel that use of lighter metals will significantly increase, as well, he believes.
“Currently, thermoplastic and composites comprise an average of almost 400 pounds per car. It is anticipated that plastics usage in the engine-related segment will increase significantly by the end of the decade,” says Schlechter. He adds that that many industry observers claim that by 2025, at the latest, the “average” weight reductions in most vehicles is expected to average almost 500 or more pounds to meet the new CAFE standards.
He anticipates the global reinforced plastic composite market to grow from 14.8 billion pounds in 2015 to about 17.6 billion pounds by 2020, demonstrating a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5%.
As for the global market for composites in automotive applications, Schlechter anticipates an increase from 9.1 million pounds in 2015 to 13.2 million pounds in 2020, with a five-year CAGR of 7.7%.

Topics: Plastics