CHICAGO - Plastic windows could become common on autos through a new joint venture.
GE Plastics and Bayer AG of Germany have agreed to develop new technology to make polycarbonate automotive windows as a substitute for glass.
The $40 million global technology and marketing project is considered the first partnership between the two fierce competitors. Each company owns 50 percent of the venture. A letter of intent was signed in May.
The resin producers expect the alliance to drive forward production of plastic windows for cars and trucks. The idea has faced its share of legal and technological roadblocks since research began more than a decade ago.
A U.S. safety law limits the use of plastic windows. They are allowed only on the rearmost side windows.
Among Big 3 vehicles, only the 1997 Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper use plastic windows. Both applications are for removable roof panels.
But the resin producers believe they are on the verge of technological advances that could crack open the market.
The alliance hopes to have fixed rear plastic windows in vehicles by 1999 or 2000, said Douglas Nutter, global glazing business director for GE Plastics, of Pittsfield, Mass. Nutter, who will head the venture, said the next goal is to have movable side windows in production by 2005.
Nutter recognizes that work must be done.
The chief concern: Plastic windows scratch easily. To address the issue, Bayer has developed an organic ceramic material that bonds with silicon to provide a hard coating, and GE has a plasma-based coating material.
In addition, GE has dispatched five Dodge Caravan minivans to various regions of the country to gain information about weatherability. The vans have sensors that detect solar and temperature exposure.
If the program is to succeed, the partners must persuade automakers to shift from glass to plastics, said Mark Witman, director of plastics technology for Bayer.
While glass is less expensive than polycarbonate pound-per-pound, plastics have a cost advantage when integrated into an entire window system, he said. Plastic windows also are about 40 percent lighter than glass, he added, and that is a factor in fuel economy.
'We know that we have to build confidence in this technology with carmakers,' Witman said. 'That's where we have an advantage, by putting the resources of these two large companies together.'
The companies plan to open a development and engineering center in the Detroit area by mid-1998 to work on resin formulations, hard-coating materials and processes for the automotive glazing market. A site will be selected after the venture is finalized in the third quarter.