Despite its no-frills reputation, there is a great future in plastics, say automotive designers. But the plastics of the future will be used in a more honest way. Instead of making plastic look like leather or wood, as is often done now, plastics will simply be plastics.
'We can make plastic look really good, so why pretend it is leather or wood?' asks John Hartnell, Ford's director of color and trim.
Ralph Gilles, a DaimlerChrysler studio director, says, 'Done right, plastic can be exciting. There are lots of fun things you can do with it. Why spend a lot of money making it look like something it's not? Let's celebrate it.'
Inspired by the colorful Apple iMac personal computer, automotive designers will use plastic in translucent form. 'Only two materials can be translucent: glass and plastic,' notes Peter Davis, interior designer at General Motors.
A few years ago, Davis brought the protective covering of a disposable razor into a European design studio. At the time, he said, 'There's something here. I just don't know what.' Shortly after, Pininfarina unveiled a concept vehicle with a translucent instrument panel. Other automakers have since followed.
The vehicle of the future will contain different uses of traditional materials and new materials. Fabrics will be recycled. And plastics will be assembled so they easily can be separated and recycled.
'The environment will (influence) materials of the future,' says Pat Murray, vice president of the technology and design division of Lear Corp.
Young people, especially in Europe, will lead the environmental trend. Europe's mad-cow disease, which has made leather more scarce, and young animal rights activists, who oppose the use of leather, have prompted companies such as Lear to consider alternatives to leather.
Suppliers also are trying new techniques, such as leather woven with fabric, to reduce the amount of leather required, says John Phillips, Lear's director of advanced product development and production design.
Designers also are considering the use of waste products such as crushed almond shells or sawdust, which can be compressed into slabs.