The car industry has always sought advanced materials that might affect car production. But cost and environmental pressures and the need to construct cars in fundamentally different new ways have made the search for new materials more urgent.
Research has led to a number of excellent concepts in recent years with huge potential to change the car industry for good. In 1998, Toyota took the lead in exploring the use of bioplastics — plastics than can be grown naturally rather than derived from oil — for cars.
Its 1/X plug-in hybrid concept had a body shell made from seaweed and weighed just 926 pounds. Since then, bioplastics use has become controversial, but work into more advanced composites to allow greater freedom in car design and functionality continues.
In 2002, GM’s AUTOnomy concept had an advanced fuel-cell “skateboard” chassis upon which a number of different upper body shells could, theoretically, be attached. The concept — which was genius in its simplicity — has influenced vehicle development since.
In 2008, BMW’s GINA concept looked at the potential of advanced materials to change the way a car was constructed and how it behaved. BMW’s designers explored possible alternatives to the traditional rigid metal body shell. Instead the GINA concept has a fabric “skin” that’s pulled taut across a metal and carbon fibre wire frame, allowing its exterior to change shape.
One hot area of research is battery technologies for electric cars. Researchers from Imperial College London are working with Volvo to develop a new composite material made of carbon fibre and a polymer resin, which is strong and light enough to actually form parts of a car’s body shell.
This means that parts of the actual vehicle body could one day double up as its battery, reducing weight and increasing interior space.
Imperial’s eggheads are trying out by placing the new material in a car’s boot floor. If it works, then future Volvos could draw power from batteries in their roof, bonnet or doors and have far better performance, range and very different looks.