UPDATED: 2/26/14 10:22 am ET - corrected
Editor's note: An earlier version of this interview incorrectly described the weight savings from installing a plastic-metal front-end module on a vehicle.
Lanxess AG, a German chemical company spun off from Bayer AG in 2004, is working on plastics that can replace metal in auto parts such as springs and brake pedals. Jens Fischer, general manager of the company's high-performance materials business unit, spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Q: Which parts of the vehicle offer the best opportunities to cut weight?
A: Front-end structures [the framelike components that attach the front fascias and bumpers to the bodies] offer so much opportunity. Second and third are engine and transmission oil pans.
Oil pans are already light and simple. How can they be improved?
You can integrate other functions, such as the oil filter. That would be impossible with steel.
Plastic brake and clutch pedals are Lanxess innovations. But will replacing metal with plastic on parts that drivers interact with sacrifice the feel of solidity and quality?
Definitely not. Sit in a BMW i3. That car is all lightweight and the interior is incredible.
Is aluminum the best material for cutting vehicle weight?
In the end, not just one material will be the winner. You use aluminum plus plastic. The metal guys are doing a lot of development that will help save a lot of weight. The plastic guys are working on it. If you install a plastic-metal front-end module, you can save 50 or 60 percent.
If all components were optimized for light weight, could vehicle weight be cut 20 percent without sacrificing safety or durability?
How about 30 percent?
I would say yes. But from model to model, you put the new features in -- mostly electronics -- so if a car retains the same weight and has more features, it looks like nothing was done. Even though the auto industry is very innovative and spends a lot on r&d, it takes a very long time to get new innovations on the road. If automobiles would use the technology available, the mpg average would already be far above 30 mpg.
Is fatigue an issue with plastic parts holding up over many years on the road?
No. It is tested for long-term durability. There are 75 million to 85 million plastic-intensive cars on the road. And that plastic can be recycled.