To get the attention of newly fuel-conscious consumers, Detroit will need a lot of help from plastics.

To get the attention of newly fuel-conscious consumers, Detroit will need a lot of help from plastics. Fuel efficiency as well as styling, safety, comfort, and affordability all ride on new kinds of plastics and new ways to use them. In the last few years, I have had the privilege to review progress in these directions as one of the judges for the annual SPE Automotive Innovation Awards. As one of a dozen or so members of a panel of consultants, academics, trade press editors, and retired automotive engineers, I spent a day listening to processors and material suppliers pitch their latest, greatest achievements in making cars and trucks better with plastics.

This year we chose nine award winners from 27 finalists. I couldn’t help noticing that 17 finalists were applications for SUVs and pickups, which have been big sellers but are now the most threatened by high fuel prices. I wondered whether these finalists reflected where car makers’ attention used to be focused or represented ongoing efforts to reform these once-popular vehicles’ gas-guzzling habits.

There’s cause for hope on that score, if you look at the stunning savings in cost and weight claimed for this year’s finalists. I have heard automotive engineers talk about the days when it would make one’s career to save 50¢ per part. But presenters of six finalists quoted savings of $1 to $15, the median being $6. Seventeen finalists were credited with cost savings up to 70%, with a median of 25%.

Nine finalists reportedly saved a median 2.6 lb per vehicle, and one saved 15 lb. Eleven other finalists weighed a median 20% less than what they replaced (or would have weighed with non-plastic alternatives), and some boasted weight savings of up to 65%. According to rules of thumb published by various sources, a 10% vehicle weight saving yields 5% to 8% better fuel efficiency. That’s more in the tank and more in the bank!