When Numbers Don’t Matter

DuPont’s survey reveals the potential for biobased materials in autos—almost
| April 25, 2011

DuPont Automotive and the Society of Automotive Engineers have proof that the materials used in our vehicles matter, at least when fossil fuel reduction, fuel economy or emission levels are of concern. The two performed a joint survey asking 500 design engineers questions on the topics. Half of the participants were affiliated with the auto manufacturing industry, the other half with the supply base. To the question “How important are materials to a product’s success?” the participants were given three choices: very important, important, or somewhat important. The participants answered the question for three time segments, 10 years ago, today and, in 10 years.

While only 19 percent of the survey participants answered that today a material is only “important” to a product’s success, it revealed that 79 percent believe in 10 years a product’s worth in terms of overall success is “very important.” The main driver that is influencing the change of importance in materials such as fibers, plastics, aluminum, ceramics and biobased materials, noted the survey, is linked to environmental regulations, according to 93 percent of respondents. To meet those regulations, 61 percent pointed to engine downsizing and power-boost technologies, while 28 percent pointed to lightweight structural materials.
David Glasscock, DuPont’s global automotive technology director, points out the urgent need for composites and plastics. If roughly 70 million lightweight vehicle engines used plastics instead of metal in under-hood applications, “we could eliminate the need for 240 million gallons of fuel.”

The challenge of making a more fuel-efficient vehicle that produces fewer emissions isn’t only about the materials, according to the survey results; 52 percent of the respondents noted the importance of collaboration throughout the value chain as a path to create a successful, and profitable, vehicle. “Clearly the engineers know how to make a fuel-efficient vehicle,” he says. “It’s making one that consumers can afford, and especially enjoy. That is the challenge.”

But, even though the survey touched on a number of issues including how automakers will meet emerging regulations, vehicle systems that will benefit from innovations in material or even strategies to strengthen the automotive industry, there was no greater data set revealed through the survey than this: when asked about “materials that were poised for growth,” 41 percent of the respondents said biobased products were on the increase as of 2011, up 15 percent from 2008. Next year, who knows what a similar survey might reveal about the importance of biobased products to a vehicle’s success. But we do know this without asking 500 people. There is roughly a 100 percent chance that reducing fossil fuel use, increasing fuel economy and concerns over emission levels will still play a role in the cars we drive. Without figuring the exact numbers, this would signal biobased materials are headed nowhere but up. 

—Luke Geiver