From pickups to sports cars, plastics reduce weight and improve performance

Fuels |  3 min. read

“Pedal to the metal?” Not so fast. These days, “Pedal to the plastic” might be the more appropriate phrase.

Yes, brake pedals are joining a long and growing list of car parts made from plastics, which happen to be both lighter in weight than their metal counterparts and also more durable, which increases safety.

Today, vehicles we use to commute to work and school are made from plastics and plastic composites, which account for less than 10 percent of a vehicle’s weight but 50 percent of its volume. Every 10 percent of weight reduction in a vehicle can improve fuel economy by 5 to 7 percent. And every 2.2 pounds in weight reduction can reduce over 40 pounds of carbon emissions.

We’re not just talking about cup holders here.

In modern vehicles, automotive plastics are used in important operational and safety features. Plastic bumpers made from thermoplastics like polyethylene and polypropylene and body panels insulated with expandable polystyrene (from ethylene and benzene) weigh half as much as steel or aluminum and absorb four to five times more energy, thus making them more resilient to the impact of a collision. Seatbelts are made of polyester (from xylene) and air bags are made of nylon (from butadiene), particularly strong plastic fibers that resists tearing.

Fuel tanks have gone plastic as well (polypropylene sure is versatile), in part due to their ability to resist corrosion. Even that perfect shine on your ride relies on polymers – polycarbonate epoxies from benzene and propylene, polyurethanes from toluene and acrylics from propylene make modern automotive paints 15 times thicker than traditional paint, thus more resistant to chips and scratches.

Ok, maybe your windshield isn’t plastic. Or is it? Many now have a thin polycarbonate layer between the glass making them more resistant to shattering. Headlights, also made from polycarbonate are lighter and stronger than glass. That polycarbonate starts with benzene and propylene to make the phenol and acetone necessary for the backbone.

But what about the almost everyone’s favorite part of a car – its body? Plastics are now used there, too. This technology actually isn’t new, as carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) based on fibers derived from polyacrylonitrile and epoxy from benzene and propylene have been used for years in high-end racing cars.

Today, CFRP is being used in regular passenger cars to reduce weight, fuel consumption and emissions. General Motors, for example, has made a CarbonPro pickup box for its 2019 GMC Sierra. BMW’s M2 CS is using a CFRP roof. In one of its Mustang models from 2016, Ford uses CFRP wheels that are 45 percent lighter than their aluminum counterparts, reducing the car’s unsprung weight by about 60 pounds.

As you can tell, all of these advanced materials are made from petrochemicals. And of course, petrochemicals are made by breaking apart molecules of petroleum and natural gas which get turned into chemical building blocks that are the foundation of thousands of products we use daily.

Another benefit? Many plastic resins used in today’s vehicles are recyclable. So even if you’ve totaled your car in a collision, it’s not a total loss.

For these reasons and more, industry experts expect the automotive plastics market to reach nearly $60 billion by 2026, with an annual increase of 5.6 percent beginning in 2019. Key companies producing these emissions-reducing materials include Arkema, BASF, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, SABIC and more.

They’re all putting the “pedal to the plastic” on these innovations. And that’s not only saving us money at the gas pump, but also making our drive to work safer and better on the environment.