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3/1/2019 | 3 MINUTE READ

2019 North American International Auto Show: An unclear future for autocomposites?

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Columnist Dale Brosius reflects on the insights — and lack thereof — he gained into current and upcoming autocomposites at 2019’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

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The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has been held at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit, Mich., U.S., every January since 1989. Prior to then, it was simply the Detroit Auto Show, but became one of the big “international” shows 30 years ago, setting itself up as equal in importance with shows in Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo and Geneva. Automakers unveil new models and suppliers promote advanced technologies for future vehicles. Over the course of two weeks, commencing with media days followed by industry and public days, more than 750,000 people come to see the latest from most of the world’s automakers.

I’ve been to many of these over the past 30 years, sometimes on the public days with my kids and other times on media or industry days before the public opening. I’m always fascinated how, during industry days, engineers from one OEM carefully inspect how other OEMs execute certain features and functionalities, some crawling under the car with a mirror, or checking body panels with a magnet to see which might be steel, aluminum, or even composite. I go to seek inspiration, perhaps for a column, or to just check the pulse on how composites are making progress in this industry.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Sometimes you’re more conspicuous by your absence than by your presence.” That was definitely the case in 2019, as major German automakers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, as well as Italian high-end marques like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati all elected to skip this year’s NAIAS. This led to a lot of speculation that the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas the week before had an impact. Both BMW and Mercedes had large presences at CES, focusing on electrification, mobility and infotainment, with BMW showing the iNext concept and Mercedes rolling out the 2020 CLA Coupé and all-electric EQC vehicles. Listen, Detroit weather can be a bit inhospitable in January, but it’s still North America’s most significant auto show. Sensing a shift, the organizers of the NAIAS are moving the 2020 show to June, still in Detroit, allowing the addition of large outdoor displays and opportunities to engage media and public interactively. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Despite the reduced OEM participation, composites were still on display at NAIAS. Baffling to some, GM elected not to display the new Sierra pickup with the carbon fiber/nylon composite CarbonPro box, although it is due to go on sale mid-2019. Tier 1 supplier Teijin Continental Structural Plastics (Auburn Hills, Mich.) displayed the CarbonPro box in the main foyer of Cobo, so at least folks could see what is coming. GM did display one version of the C7 Corvette, which has a carbon fiber hood, but the company elected not to unveil the forthcoming C8 version, which is anticipated to be a mid-engine version (a la Ferrari and Lamborghini). GM says there will be a separate unveiling in spring/summer 2019. We can only speculate the extent to which carbon fiber components will be featured in that vehicle.

True to previous announcements concentrating on the truck and SUV market going forward, Ford displayed only one four-door sedan, a Fusion. Ford did display the carbon fiber-intensive Ford GT supercar, available in limited volume, and made a big splash with the introduction of the 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500, which will be available later in 2019. With a 700-horsepower, 5.2-liter supercharged engine, it is Ford’s most powerful car ever. The base model includes a carbon fiber driveshaft and what appeared to be an SMC hood. On display was the version with the carbon fiber track package, with exposed carbon fiber in the front splitter, rear wing and fully carbon fiber wheels, the latter supplied by Carbon Revolution (Geelong, Australia).

The JEC Group (Paris, France) hosted a large pavilion in the Cobo foyer during media and industry days, featuring production carbon fiber and fiberglass parts on various vehicles, including a thermoplastic liftgate debuting on the new Acura RDX and produced by Magna Exteriors (Aurora, Ontario, Canada). Traffic was brisk, especially during industry days, which is good, as it exposed more engineers to the potential of composites.

Overall, I came away from 2019 NAIAS with more questions than answers. We are currently in a market where autonomy, electrification and infotainment are dominant themes in the automotive industry. The need to improve fuel economy and emissions is still there, but the path forward is less clear. Maybe the June 2020 NAIAS will provide some insight into the future of composites in this market. We know it will be warmer. Here’s to hoping it will be more vibrant as well.

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