With few exceptions, the global automotive industry has made a solid recovery from the downturn in 2008. Led by China, Japan, the US and new growth markets, world production levels have increased, sales are growing and prospects are positive for the industry as a whole. Specialty chemicals help support the automotive industry through a range of products designed to reduce vehicle weight for better mileage, enhance performance, increase energy efficiency, and improve manufacturing quality. Especially exciting is the increased use of silicone-based microchips for displays, safety-critical functions and entertainment systems in tomorrow’s ‘connected cars’.
In the dark days of the economic downturn, the global automotive industry faced plummeting sales levels and frozen credit markets. Since then, the industry has come roaring back. Global production has increased by approximately 25 million units since 2009, and current revenue stands at more than US$2 trillion.1 About 1 billion cars and light trucks are now on the road, a number that is growing by roughly 4 to 5 million yearly.2 According to many analysts, industry growth will continue into the next decade, and global production will increase by 21 million units by 2021.3
The automotive industry clearly understands that less is more when it comes to weight. Less weight means greater savings in fuel costs, lower fuel costs, and reduced levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The good news is that chemicals are supporting these objectives in more ways than one.
Plastics now make up 50 percent of the volume of new cars but only 10 percent of the weight.4Modern polyesters reduce the quantity of foam used in seats, decreasing their weight significantly. Light weight polycarbonates and their blends are starting to be tailored for sunroofs, panoramic roofs, and side and rear windows. Polyamide containers for air bags are more than 50 percent lighter than the metal equivalents.5 Body plastic panels also help to reduce weight, besides being cheap and easy to produce.
For today’s cars, performance means processing capability as much as horsepower. Driver assistance systems, security, entertainment, sensors, cameras, anti-skid systems, location devices, and various engine control systems are now directly or indirectly dependent on computers.
All these innovations are dependent on computer microchips, and that is where the automotive chemical industry plays a vital role. Chemical engineers pioneered the mass production of silicon microchips in the 1970s,6 and today they are routinely involved with the development of advanced semiconductor materials and the manufacturing processes required to produce them.
In the KPMG Global Automotive Executive Survey 2015, the majority of executives stated that the growth of emerging markets is the number one key industry trend. Being close to these customers is critical, so automotive chemical companies are developing market initiatives, joint ventures and relocation strategies.
Only a minority of survey respondents consider alternative powertrain technologies and vehicle connectivity as extremely important key trends at least until 2025. Respondents said that consumers remain focused on traditional product issues such as fuel efficiency and safety.
Whatever direction the global automotive industry takes, automotive chemicals can help to lower costs, improve performance, and increase sustainability for raw materials, components, and vehicles around the world.
1Automobile Auto Dealers Industry Profile, FirstResearch, January 2015
2Auto Industry Profile, Plunkett Research.
3LMC Automotive; IHS: Global vehicle production to increase by 21M units by 2021, China to account for half, Autoblog.com, May 12, 2014
4Plastics in Automotive Applications, American Chemistry Council
5How does the automotive industry rely on petrochemistry?, Xperimania.net
6Achievements in Electronics, Chemical Engineers in Action