The History, Importance, and Use of Plastics in Automobiles

Plastic vehicle interior

The History, Importance, and Use of Plastics in Automobiles

Plastics have been used widely in vehicle claddings to improve fuel efficiency by making vehicles lighter and reducing corrosion due to salt and water on metal surfaces. Although plastics have been used for decades both externally and internally, many automotive manufacturers have now switched to making bioplastics and polymers, instead of relying on fossil-based plastics, to improve their carbon footprint and promote sustainability. Below, we will look at the history of plastic vehicle cladding, and the increased use of plastics in vehicles over the past century. 

The History of Plastics Use in Vehicle Cladding

Modern exterior body panels, many internal mechanics, and vehicle interiors consist of nearly 100% plastic components. This switch is due in part to the invention of synthetic plastic by Leo Baekeland – Bakelite in 1907, that was marketed as a lightweight, durable, non-conducive, and heat resistant. It was lauded as a solution that could revolutionize the small parts manufacturing process. In the automotive industry, Bakelite began to be used in instrument panels, controls surfaces, and in parts under the hood since it was heat resistant and non-conductive.

Bioplastics

Henry Ford sought to create a link between farming and automotive industries in order to support the struggling agricultural industry following the Great Depression. In 1941 the Ford Motor Company rolled out the first car body made of soybean bioplastics, unfortunately, due to WW2 all production was halted and forgotten in the recovery efforts following the war.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and Ford began testing polymers made from renewable fibers. Many other car manufacturers have followed suit including:

  • Mazda uses plastic derived from plant-based materials in an effort to reduce petroleum use and lower their carbon footprint.
  • Toyota was the first to use a sugar-cane derived PET (polyethylene) and PLA (polylactic acid).
  • Mitsubishi helped develop a bioplastic called BioMat from bio-succinic acid to create auto parts such as console inserts, interior door panels, air ducts, trim and strip, and console inserts. 
  • Lexus created the CT200h using Bio-PE, made from bamboo and corn for luggage compartments, speakers, and floor mats.
  • Fiat, in 2012 used soya-derived polyurethanes and castor-oil derived polyamides in over a million of their vehicles. 
  • Mercedes-Benz utilizes a bio-PE from flax to create engine and transmission covers, as well as underbody panels.
  • BMW uses wood-based composites for its panels to reduce their weight by 20%. They also utilize flax and sisal. 

Porsche designs car bodies from Hemp composites

5 Benefits of Plastic Vs. Metal in Car Parts

Although the use of plastics in automobile manufacturing debuted before WW2, by the 1950s most cars were still made entirely out of steel. However, over the decades that followed, plastics became favourable due to their low-cost, lighter weight, and increased safety during an accident compared to an all-steel frame.

Fuel Efficiency: Due to their reduced weight, the inclusion of plastics in vehicle design boosts fuel efficiency and lowers emissions overall. Today, plastics make up nearly half of a vehicle’s volume but only 10 percent of its weight.

Innovation & Design: External plastic vehicle cladding allows car designers the ability to create innovative concepts that may not be possible when shaping metal. The use of plastics also reduces production and manufacturing costs, passing those savings on to the buyer. Additionally, when it comes to scrapes and dents it’s much easier to repair or replace a plastic bumper or plastic car door cladding than metal, which rusts when scraped. 

Sustainability: Fuel efficiency on its own lends to sustainability in the form of reduced emissions, but beyond that, as auto manufacturers create new renewable plastics to use in vehicle design, energy savings and car performance will increase. A large number of automobile manufacturers are already making use of recycled plastic for many of their applications such as seat cushions, replacement bumpers, splash guards, and wheel liners. 

Safety: The safety features in your car such as airbags and seatbelts are made from durable polyester. In an accident these polymer-based safety features and exterior items such as car door cladding and bumpers can take an impact far better than metal, often leading to a better outcome for you and your vehicle. 

Weather Resistance: Weather constantly takes a toll on your vehicle, which is why synthetic coatings on metal surfaces are used to reduce the chance of corrosion due to salt damage, extreme heat, and water exposure. Even glass windshields are coated with plastic film to improve weather resistance, wear and tear, and reduce the chance of shattering. Under the hood, car parts are either coated or made entirely from plastics such as polyurethane which is heat-resistant, abrasion-resistant, yet flexible.  

The Future of Plastics in Vehicles

Reducing fuel consumption and harmful emissions are on the minds of auto manufacturers and consumers alike. As new green technologies become mainstream, so too will innovative bioplastics and polyamides. Electric vehicle makers will undoubtedly be the first to make the most of bioplastics since their lighter weight lowers energy consumption. EV manufacturers are already beginning to incorporate more recyclable plastics into vehicles. The Nissan Leaf, for example, is made from 25% recycled material, such as used pop bottles and recycled steel. Resins from recycled auto plastics are also being repurposed to make vehicle cladding for car doors and dash consoles in the Nissan Leaf. Even though many regular plastics are non-recyclable, the move toward bioplastics is a big step toward improving the sustainability of automotive manufacturing.

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