Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, cars were made out of three materials: metal, metal and more metal.
OK, that’s something of a hyperbole but not much — automobiles of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were renowned for their lavish use of sheet metal — “acres and acres” of it, as later car writers would wax poetically.
But then came the ’60s… and the advent of plastic, in all its permutations, in every industry, including the automobile industry. Suddenly, a myriad of different car parts were made of plastic for the first time: steering wheels, dashboards and other accessories. In the ensuing decades, more and more auto parts would be manufactured in plastic: bumpers, tail lights and, eventually, even gas tanks.
Fast-forward to today: industry observers are envisioning a brave new world, where a new car-maker may not just be a buyer of individual components such as bumpers or tail-light lenses, but of entire modules — “smart” modules — such as a front-end module, a rear-end module, a side module, a floor module, a roof module, etc.
There are basic chemistry laws which give plastics the advantage. One of those advantages is the non-interference of plastic parts with electrical signals, such as radio waves. For example, car companies are packaging antennas and sensors in bumpers and spoilers and other exterior plastics because many of those parts are not compatible with metal parts.
But auto researchers haven’t stopped there: Today, they are looking at ways to integrate electronics directly in film and coating of plastic pieces. One of those areas is a paint on a plastic part that also can collect and emit electronic signals.
There is already a precedent: Plastic sun roofs that incorporate solar energy cells to help regulate a car’s temperature when it’s parked. Researchers are inspired by those kinds of examples to create even more “smart plastic” car parts.
So an “all-plastic” car? Not as far away as you might think…