Automakers are turning to plastic components to help meet the European Union's stringent pedestrian protection rules.
To cope with the first phase of the regulations that took effect last October, some carmakers added plastic energy absorbers to front bumpers. Others may use plastic in the new designs of hoods, fenders and lightning systems, automakers and suppliers say.
"In 2006 and 2007 you'll see a lot more of these systems on the road," said Robert Nelson, global market director for GE Plastics Automotive, of Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands.
"I have exposure to most major OEMs in Europe and in the Pacific. Every one of them is currently designing multiple parts on multiple vehicle platforms using plastic technology to help meet different requirements" in both Europe and Japan, Nelson said. The use of plastics for pedestrian safety will be widespread by 2010, when the second phase of the EU's regulations goes into effect, he added.
Both phases require carmakers to create more crash-absorbing crush space on car front ends between the hood and so-called hard points, such as the engine and radiator.
The industry is preparing for more countries to adopt similar standards. Plastic suppliers see it as a boon for business. Plastics offer carmakers a lightweight solution with greater design flexibility, although currently often at higher cost.
Suzuki started early to meet Europe's Phase 1 requirements. It used a thermoplastic blend called Xenoy developed by GE Plastics to create energy absorbers across the front bumper of the 2005 Suzuki Swift small car.
Renault is redesigning its front bumpers, which already are made out of plastic, to incorporate energy absorbers in all 2007 models, said Jerome Lestavel, a Renault engineer in charge of pedestrian safety issues. Renault may use plastic, rather than aluminum or steel, to reinforce car hoods, he said.
Ford Motor Co. also may use more plastic because of pedestrian safety issues. The company may replace steel fenders of some vehicles with plastic fenders, said Lebzy Gonzalez, a technical expert in Ford's materials research and advanced engineering department.