With greater awareness of the environmental impact of materials used in vehicles, the automotive industry is pioneering material innovation to come up with sustainable, low-impact alternatives, which help the environment, but don’t compromise on quality.
From tomatoes to pineapples, dandelion to agave, automakers from budget to luxury brands are coming up with incredible material alternatives and new tyre technology to make future cars sustainable from the inside out. Here are the major car technology innovations taking place now, which will make up your car seat or tyre in the coming years.
In recent years, the trend has moved towards using more sustainable and natural materials. The automotive industry is leading the charge on innovation with new materials that can replace harmful ones and which also benefit agriculture and other industries. One example is the synthetic leather, SofTex, which weighs far less than genuine leather, produces fewer carbon emissions and fewer Volatile Organic Compounds.
We are testing the use of a translucent smart surface material, acella hylite, which adapts lighting to circadian rhythms, weather conditions and ambient light levels to enhance safety and comfort. Other innovative automotive materials being explored for car interiors include tomato skin for hoses and suspension bushings, lobster shells due to their good antimicrobial properties and coffee chaff, which is used in headlamps.
Pioneering automakers are already using a number of natural fibres in current car production. These sustainable materials are used to reinforce plastics, produce foam and replace harmful materials such as fibreglass or oil-based materials; some examples are soy foam, wheat straw, kenaf fibre, coconut fibre and rice hulls. The possibility of using leftover agave plant fibres from tequila production to produce more sustainable bioplastic parts such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units and storage bins is also being explored. Jose Cuervo is making use of all components of the 200-300 tons of agave that the tequila distributor harvests daily. Research is also being conducted into the viability of using fast-growing bamboo and algae for interior applications. Bamboo matures in about 2-5 years, is compostable and has the tensile strength of steel.
Another revolutionary concept, originating from leather goods expert Carmen Hijosa, is to make faux swede out of fibre extracted from pineapple leaves. Piñatex™ makes use of the 25 million tons of pineapple leaves harvested each year and is one quarter of the weight of real leather at two thirds of the price. The leaves would otherwise be burnt or left to rot and their production into a non-woven textile can provide income for farmers and become a vibrant new industry for pineapple-growing countries. Piñatex is currently used to make shoes, bags and clothing but has also been used to make floor mats in cars and manufacturers are looking to use the leather alternative for further car upholstery, particularly seats.
SofTex fewer CO₂ emissions compared to leather
Piñatex weight reduction compared to leather
Cellulose Fibre stronger compared to steel
The stringent safety requirements for a car’s exterior make the use of innovative material technology much more challenging. Nevertheless, car companies are testing the viability of steel, aluminium, carbon fibre, alloys and hybrid materials. Japan’s Ministry of the Environment made a car entirely out of wood: the Nano Cellulose Vehicle. Cellulose fibre is a plant-derived material that includes agricultural waste and is one-fifth the weight of steel, but five times as strong. Using it to build the vehicle’s bodywork and part of the tub can help make the vehicle half the weight of a traditional automobile. The Fraunhofer institute is also investigating the viability of using natural-fibre-reinforced plastics to create a lightweight vehicle body. They have created the third generation of their Bio-Concept Car, which uses organic composite materials in the doors. Compared to steel, this results in a 60% weight reduction.
The use of rubber in tyre technology is also a major consideration for future sustainability projects in the automotive industry. The global tyre market grows by about 3% each year, and rubber supply is struggling to meet the demand as the source of natural rubber, the caoutchouc tree can only be cultivated on a fraction of the world’s land surface. Together with the Fraunhofer Institute and plant breeder ESKUSA, has already produced its first truck tyres using only natural rubber sources from dandelions.
The material, Taraxagum, is harvested from Russian dandelion plants, which only take one year to grow. The resulting Conti EcoPlus HD3 shows a comparative level of tyre performance and tread to our traditional premium tyres and will begin serial production within the next few years.
Smart and adaptive materials are also on the rise in car production. From piezo crystals, which capture the energy from objects in motion and convert it into electrical energy, to shape memory materials and electroactive plastics, we can look forward to many intelligent applications in the coming years. Piezo crystals have already been embedded into the tarmac of busy roads to capture energy from vehicles’ vibrations. It is said that on a 10 mile (16km) stretch of highway, the crystals could generate enough electricity to power a city with a population of 100,000 people. But imagine if such elements could be incorporated into the actual car to help power electric vehicles.
Shape memory alloys is a metallic material that can be bent and stretched in its cool state and retain its original shape when heated. This could have many applications in vehicles, from the louver system to the hatch vent. You never know what your automobile may look like in a few years, but you can guarantee it will feature innovative car technology and sustainable materials of the future.