Buckle up: Cars of the future will ride on plastics

Feb. 14, 2022
Self-driving cars and other pioneering technologies will be inextricably linked to advanced plastic materials that fuel sustainability, safety and durability.

By Bruce Geiselman 

A driverless future in which riders eschew personal car ownership or fit in a workout on the way to the office is nearly here. And that automotive future is inextricably linked to advanced plastic materials that fuel sustainability, durability and even cleanliness. 

“The automakers really trust the plastic value chain to provide for them and work with them on sustainable, durable, lightweight solutions,” said Gina Oliver, senior director of durable markets advocacy at the American Chemistry Council (ACC); previously, she was the senior director of the Automotive Market Team within the Plastic Division, which represents resin manufacturers working with the automotive industry.  

Self-driving cars, once the subject of science fiction, are coming soon, according to the ACC’s Automotive Plastics Division. Worldwide, vehicle manufacturers, technology companies and at least one ride-sharing company are developing technology to ensure that riders enjoy a hands-free experience without compromising on safety. 

The rise of autonomous vehicles also would create new markets for plastics. The vehicles under development are equipped with cameras, radar, light imaging detection and radar (LIDAR) and a variety of redundant sensors constructed primarily with plastics.  

“Those are plastic-enabled — you can’t make them any other way,” Oliver said. 

Sensors also need to “peer” through plastics to successfully navigate roads. Thermoplastics like PC permit light and imaging transparency. Integrating thermoplastics and plastic films into front grills and bumpers allows engineers to mount sensors invisibly into a vehicle’s grill, side panels or bumpers, according to the ACA. 

Autonomous vehicles, especially when used in ride-sharing operations, could open the door to additional uses for plastics in new interior features. Once the driver, in essence, becomes a passenger, vehicles could include plastic foldaway desks so they could serve as mobile offices. Entertainment centers, consisting largely of plastics, also could become more prevalent. 

“Everyday drivers are going to have new pockets of time in autonomous vehicles that they didn’t have before,” Oliver said. “It’s going to become part of their workday.” 

Oliver foresees workers engaging in work-related Zoom conference calls, participating in virtual meetings while seated at a desk in a car and using built-in screens with haptics, all of which are constructed primarily of plastics. 

Fitness-minded riders might even get in a workout on the way to the office. Oliver foresees autonomous vehicles with built-in treadmills or recumbent bicycles. 

“All of that will be plastics enabled — you’re not going to be able to do it with metal,” she said. 

Self-driving cars used for ridesharing may increase the demand for antimicrobial plastics, which incorporate an ingredient that deters microbial growth, reducing the risk of transmission of germs and reducing odors. 

If autonomous vehicles become a reality, shared ownership may emerge as commonplace. Instead of paying for parking and having a car sit unused most of the time, riders using phone apps could easily hail a ride whenever needed and not worry about finding and paying for parking spaces, Oliver said.  However, if vehicles are operating 24/7, durable interiors will be needed. Plastics can provide clean, low-maintenance, stylish interiors, according to ACC.  

Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, for example, already are used for some luxury car interiors because customers enjoy seeing the exposed pattern of the carbon fiber, Oliver said. It could become more common in ride-sharing vehicles. 

“That’s what consumers are looking for right now and consider premium,” Oliver said. “At the same time, obviously, it is providing amazing wear and tear. It’s strong; it’s super light, and it looks great. Consumers think it is a premium, so it is a win all around. … By putting these very durable antimicrobial self-cleaning coverings and surfaces into the interiors and the door handles on the exterior and interior of the car, we’re going to really help propel and sustain the ride-sharing industry, and when we say ride sharing, we’re also talking about things like subscription services.” 

The ACC believes people might pay a monthly fee to subscribe to a service that provides a vehicle when needed. It would eliminate the need for insurance and maintenance, Oliver said. Unlike a lease, a subscriber could enter or leave the program at any time, or decide to change vehicles, she said.  

“Those vehicles also are going to have to be really durable because they’re going to just rotate those cars,” she said. “It’s almost like a rental car, so our materials are going to be really important in order for that to be successful because there is going to be wear and tear.” 

Light weight, strength and safety 

Plastics make up 50 percent of the volume of a vehicle today, but less than 10 percent of its weight, Oliver said. Lightweighting improves fuel economy and reduces carbon emissions significantly. 

“Those lightweight solutions are not just decreasing the weight for the overall vehicle and the parts and components that comprise it, but, importantly, they are reducing the carbon emissions and contributing to a more sustainable future.” 

Plastics also can improve safety. 

“We have an incredible materials strength-to-weight ratio, and we have an incredible energy-absorption rate of up to four times more crush energy than steel,” Oliver said. “We’re not just reducing the baseline weight of a vehicle when you compare it to heavier materials, but we’re also able to exceed NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] crash requirements when we do that. That’s one of the reasons why you see our materials being adopted very early in race cars like Formula One, for example. They’re getting the results of materials being super strong but very light.” 

Passenger cars have adopted PC-blend bumpers and, increasingly, body panels, doors, hoods and roofs are made with polymers, Oliver said.  

“Composites, particularly those that are enhanced with things like carbon fiber, tend to have a higher strength-to-weight ratio,” Oliver said. A more recent development, she said, is an interest in composite parts that include graphene, which is “even stronger than carbon fiber.”  

Graphene is newer and more expensive than carbon fiber, so it is not cost-effective for producing larger parts. However, tiny amounts of it are used to stabilize heat within electric vehicle battery enclosures, Oliver said. 

Windshields of cars sold in North America come as a multilayer unit that includes a thin layer of plastic between two thinner sheets of glass. The combination can be thinner, lighter and stronger than tempered glass alone. The tear-resistant plastic layer helps prevent occupant ejection. NHTSA estimates these layers help prevent over 300 fatalities a year.  

In the future, windshields might be made entirely of PC, Oliver said. In addition to being lighter, PC windows might also be safer for pedestrians and bicyclists involved in a collision with a vehicle because the flexible material could minimize head injuries and wouldn’t shatter. 

PC windshields currently are used on race cars but not on street vehicles. However, the American Chemistry Council and its members are talking with NHTSA to try to help inform future regulations for enhanced pedestrian protection that could include the use of PC. 


“We have to continually develop new solutions, especially when it comes to electric vehicles because electric vehicles (EVs) are inherently heavier than traditional combustion engines,” Oliver said. 

Typically, EV batteries comprise about one-third of a vehicle’s weight, she said.  

“We’ve got to help automakers come up with new ways to lightweight vehicles, and they’re doing that by turning to lightweight materials such as plastic composites,” Oliver said. “They’ve got to do that because of ‘range anxiety.’ ” 

To get consumers onboard with EVs, automakers want to increase driving range to be comparable to vehicles with internal combustion engines, she said. 

“Automakers have huge sustainability commitments,” Oliver said. “Our member companies do, too. It’s very important to all of us, and we’re working with them to reduce those environmental impacts and help them meet their goal for increasing the use of recycled material in their vehicles.” 

The ACC’s Automotive Plastics Division and its members are creating new sustainable materials that sometimes are bio-based and sometimes created from recycled materials. They also are concentrating on designing vehicles, systems and components for end-of-life recycling.  

Recycled content already is being used throughout vehicles, including in the bumpers, liftgates, seating and under-the-hood components. 

“We’re already seeing many automakers who have set specific goals to begin implementing initiatives that are going to be moving them to this full circular economy for their operations,” Oliver said. “Some of those goals are specific to plastic, which is why we’re working with them.” 

As part of its commitment to sustainability, the ACC and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory last September announced a five-year memorandum of understanding to advance end-of-life and circularity solutions for durable automotive plastics. 

The partnership will demonstrate a pilot-scale separation line to reclaim durable plastic through efficient sorting, separation, and advanced recycling to make new high-performance plastics for reuse. The ACC, the Energy Department, automakers, suppliers and auto recyclers are getting involved, Oliver said.  

“It’s going to be initially through this automotive lens, but the beauty of it is, we think that at the end of the day, we’ll be able to translate those solutions into other durable plastics industries as well,” Oliver said. “We’re really excited about it. It’s a huge endeavor.” 

Bruce Geiselman, senior staff reporter

[email protected]


American Chemistry Council, Washington, D.C., 202-249-7000, www.americanchemistry.com  

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.