By Ron Shinn
I came into the plastics industry 32 years ago when the key to the future was believed to be replacing metal parts. Lightweighting was a benefit of metal replacement, and, a few years later, rising fuel prices added importance to making cars as light as possible.
Demand for lightweighting continued in the early days of electric-powered vehicles as automakers desperately looked to compensate for anemic battery performance.
This has been a great trend for the plastics industry. But unfortunately, it might be changing.
According to a report from Lux Research, we are shifting to battery-powered vehicles and the key to the future is now improving battery performance. The research concludes that advancements in battery technology and the use of regenerative braking can result in more significant battery-range improvements than lightweighting. In other words, battery electric vehicles (BEV) will not need more lightweighting than vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE).
Improving battery performance might have more upside than lightweighting in terms of overall vehicle performance.
Battery technology also has far more runway than materials technology, according to Lux, as improving energy storage will result in more savings than developing new materials.
“BEVs are overwhelmingly more efficient than ICE vehicles due to regenerative braking and more efficient motors and are increasingly outgrowing the issue of limited range,” said Anthony Schiavo, senior analyst at Lux. “Materials companies need to start planning for a fully mature BEV space.”
BEVs must be built to accommodate large battery packs at the bottom of the vehicle instead of a heavy engine in the front. Lux predicts this will drive automakers back to a body-on-frame architecture, which favors high-strength steels and aluminums as the primary structural elements. With weight mostly at the bottom of the vehicle, performance will be unchanged.
Lux based its research on data from current electric vehicles but pointed out that battery research by Tesla, General Motors and others might lead to the development of cheaper or more efficient batteries significantly.
Another issue has been battery life. BEV batteries are expensive to replace and how long they would last was a big question regarding early electric cars. Existing technology indicates batteries will last about 200,000 miles, but some automakers say their goal is 1 million miles.
I expect materials manufacturers will continue to invest in research for new resins that can be used for lighter automotive parts. I also expect the plastics-to-metal trend to continue for the foreseeable future.
But the plastics industry may need to step up its game if it expects lightweighting to be an important focus for automobiles in the future.
The executive summary of the Lux Research report is available for free at www.luxresearchinc.com/press-releases/by-2030-battery-electric-vehicles-will-be-less-reliant-on-lightweighting-according-to-lux-research.
Ron Shinn, editor