"The Road Ahead" As Seen by K 2019

K 2019 organizers explain how electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles are two areas that will generate important opportunities for North American plastics. 


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With K 2019 only a couple weeks away, I am getting excited to pack my bags and hit the show floor of this immense, international plastics event.  To help explain what this show offers attendees and exhibitors alike, here I am sharing a report by show organizers that explains what they believe to be two important growth areas for North American plastics manufacturers:

EVs and AVs

Electric vehicles (EVs) are common in North America, if underrepresented when compared with the number of cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines. EVs, however, are more reliant on plastics to achieve the weight they need for optimum cruising range with a manageable battery size. Too much vehicle weight necessitates a disproportionately large battery (the ratio is geometric), which in turn requires an inordinate amount of interior space and consequent tradeoffs in vehicle design and passenger comfort.

Similarly, autonomous vehicles (AVs) will become major users of plastics and composites since they will be powered by electricity or, in some cases, hydrogen, both of which will be weight-dependent for maximum range.

Every legacy automaker in the U.S. is developing AVs, as are global competitors with manufacturing plants in America such as Daimler, Volkswagen Group and BMW, as well as newcomers like Tesla and Waymo.

Auto OEMs expect to begin selling AVs with limited autonomy as soon as 2022, and with full autonomy no later than 2030. In addition to electric propulsion, AVs will be electronics-rich environments, with connections to personal communication devices like smartphones, the internet, and of course the high-tech sensors and lidar (light detection and ranging) systems that make autonomous operation possible. Aptiv (formerly Delphi Automotive Systems), a specialist in AV electronics, says that by 2020 a car with some autonomous capabilities will transfer 100,000 pieces of data each microsecond. The current data-transfer rate in AVs is 15,000 per microsecond.

These and other requirements mean that plastics and composites will play major roles in weight reduction, part consolidation, heat dissipation, high-tech lighting like OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), and flexible touchscreens for controls and morphable (shape-changing) instrument panels.

The transition to AVs seems unstoppable. While they may never entirely replace conventional gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, the auto industry is preparing for a major shift in unit sales and revenues. Consultant Roland Berger says OEMs will see their share of conventional car sales decline worldwide to 29.9% in 2030 from 34.7% in 2015, and their share of profits fall to 22.3% from 38.1% in the same period. AV fleets, in contrast, will capture 19.6% of global revenues in 2030 compared with 1.2% in 2025, and 40.3% of profits from 2.8% in the five-year timespan.

AVs won’t be just for the road. A number of companies in the U.S. are working to develop autonomous urban air taxis that will ferry riders around congested cities as well as to and from airports.

Arguably the best known of these is Uber, the ubiquitous ride-sharing program, which formed Uber Elevate to make urban air taxis a reality. The company plans to open “skyports” in at least two cities, Los Angeles and Dallas, by 2020, with an eye toward full commercial service in 2023. Uber ground vehicles, autonomous or with drivers, will transport passengers to a skyport where they will board a small autonomous air taxi that is programmed to fly them where they want to go. The vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) vehicles will be electric and require lightweight polymer technologies to optimize flight range and battery power and to accommodate the electronics required for flight, air safety and passenger convenience. Uber is working with five aviation companies on designs for the air taxis.

One major aerospace manufacturer developing such a vehicle is Boeing, whose Aurora Flight Sciences division is one of the companies working on air taxi designs with Uber. Early this year Boeing flight-tested a VTOL prototype. How the concept of autonomous air taxis develops is anyone’s guess at this point. However, enough corporations are investing significant sums of money in the idea and the technology that it could well be a commercial service in the next five or so years.

For more on K 2019, click here.