Composites make noise at Detroit Auto Show

There were 59 new cars introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and composites are used in several on exhibit.

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Overflow crowds, up about 3 to 5 percent over attendance last year, descended on the 2012 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Mich. held at Cobo Hall in January, as confidence in the economy stabilizes and the industry appears ready to reap another year of solid sales growth. predicts sales of 15 million light vehicle sales in 2013, or an increase of about 4 percent over 14.4 million vehicles sold in 2012. The sales surge continues to be driven, in large part, by the release of pent-up demand from buyers who deferred buying or leasing a new vehicle during the recession. The market is also expected to receive a boost from nearly 500,000 more lease returners, compared to 2012, who are expected to buy or lease a new vehicle when their lease terminates.

There were 59 new vehicle introductions at the show, of which nine were exclusive to the North American market. With ever-more stringent fuel economy standards on the horizon, new and revamped hybrid and all-electric vehicles shared the spotlight with fresh introductions of more fuel-efficient pickup trucks and technology- and perk-laden SUVs and luxury cars. Thermoplastic composites have, and will continue, to play a prominent role in the industry’s effort to lightweight and improve fuel economy. In cars equipped with conventional internal combustion engines and diesels, composites have seen steady growth in under-the-hood, body and high-temperature power train applications. In hybrids and all-electrics, composites are already the material of choice for battery-packs, and will likely play an expanded role in body interior and exterior components. 

Ford Motor Co.’s (Dearborn, Mich.) electric/hybrid lineup now includes three vehicles with EPA ratings of 100 MPGe combined or more—the Focus Electric, C-MAX Hybrid and C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. Ford claims the C-MAX Hybrid line, which launched late last year, has become the fastest selling hybrid ever at launch, with 8,030 units sold in its first two months on the market, outpacing the record of 7,300 held by the 2006 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Ford used the show to introduce the second of its plug-in hybrid models, the Ford Fusion Energi, said to be the top-performing plug-in on the market with a range of 620 miles/998 km when starting with a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas. Ford also announced that customers will now have the choice to order both the Fusion and the Focus with one of three power choices: All-electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid. The standard engine for the hybrids will be a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle engine.

German car companies are expanding their hybrid platforms as evidenced by the North American premiere of the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, powered by a new light-weight, turbocharged 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine capable of 150 hp, coupled to a 27-hp electric motor. The total output of 170 hp is sent through a seven-speed DSG transmission, giving it the distinction of being the first hybrid to use a dual-clutch automatic. VW also displayed a plug-in SUV prototype called CrossBlue that mates a diesel engine with two electric motors. The vehicle can travel 14 miles in all-electric mode and gets an estimated 35 mpg while running on both gas and electric.

Chinese automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. Ltd. (GAC) featured three vehicles on display: The Triumpchi is a four-wheel drive hybrid with a 1.8-liter engine and a 45-liter/12-gal gas tank; Triumcphi GS5 BEV is a pure electric concept crossover vehicle. Jointly developed by GAC Engineering and AC Propulsion, the car is powered by AC Propulsion's Gen 3 Integrated Drive & Recharge system, which features a high-efficiency induction motor and highly integrated Power Electronics Unit. The high-speed motor provides instantaneously available 225 Nm of torque and up to 150 kW (200 hp) of power; as well the company also showed the all-electric, E-jet concept sedan. While the company is not currently selling cars in North America, a spokesperson for GAC at the show said “circumstances look good” for the company to begin selling cars in the U.S. in the near future.

One of the more anticipated events at the NAIAS, was Chevrolet’s introduction of the 2014 Corvette Stingray. Pre-show speculation had it that GM intended to re-design and reposition the venerable 60-year old model as a world-class sports car intended to go head-to-head with Porsche and Ferrari. The car is designed with a lower center of gravity and reduced drag intended to enhance performance. Once again, composites are prevalent; the vehicle features a carbon fiber roof and hood molded by Plasan Carbon Composites (Bennington, VT., USA). Plasan molded both parts using a “pressure press,” a high-speed thermoset molding process co-developed with Globe Machine Manufacturing (Tacoma, Wash.). Jim Staargaard, president of Plasan, says the car’s carbon fiber roof is available in two versions, one painted and the other with exposed weave. The roof comprises about six plies of 1.2-mm-thick prepreg and the hood is comprised of two 1.2-mm-thick carbon fiber shells hot-bonded together.

Billed as the “world’s first high performance electric pickup truck,” VIA Motors’ (Orem, Utah) VTRUX, also known as an extended range electric vehicle (eREV), is actually a concept hybrid pick-up built on a Chevy Silverado chassis. VIA, whose chairman, Bob Lutz, is former vice-chairman of General Motors, has raised more than $5 million and has a business plan to produce extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs) by modifying trucks, vans and SUVs. The company purchases basic vehicles from GM and couples the gas powertrain to an electric drive. After beta testing its vehicles with fleet customers, VIA plans to sell directly to fleets under the VTRUX brand name. The truck at the show featured SMC-molded body panels, however, the company representative at the show could not say whether or not the body panels on VIA’s first projected commercial vehicles would be made of composites or metal.

Smart (Daimler) introduced its third-generation Smart Fortwo electric drive car, saying the car is scheduled to available to purchase in North America by second quarter 2013. The third generation car includes a more powerful electric motor for improved acceleration and top speed, and a new lithium-ion battery pack, increasing the range of the vehicle to 140 km/87 miles.

During the show, executives with PPG Industries held a meeting to discuss the company’s new products and plans for its automotive customers. Tom Kerr, PPG vice president, fiber glass, outlined the evolution of composites in the auto industry and pledged the company’s support for suppliers and OEMs looking to build and integrate more composite parts into vehicle platforms. Kerr said there are still opportunities to expand the use of composites in automotive applications, an initiative that has taken on greater urgency given the automakers’ improve fuel economy via weight reduction.

At another event held during the show, executives with Johnson Controls discussed trends in seating, highlighting the company’s new Gen 3 Synergy seating. Frame components of the Synergy Seat are constructed of natural fiber-reinforced composites, which take the place of steel. The company said it expects the use of composites in seating and interiors in general to become a trend, which provide weight reduction and improved fuel efficiency.