54.5

That's the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, that the U.S. government expects all of the country's cars and light trucks to conform to by the year 2025. In 2014, the average was 24.1 miles/gallon.  So the automotive industry is under a lot of pressure to more than double the average vehicles fuel efficiency in the next 10 years.  The clock is ticking. 
The auto industry has already made huge strides in the way of eco-friendliness over the past 5-7 years, as hybrid-electric and electric vehicles have gained momentum in the marketplace.  While hybrids and electric cars may not be mainstream quite yet, a number of fuel efficient technologies under the hood is – like engine start-stop systems, regenerative braking, more sophisticated automatic transmissions and direct fuel injection engines, just to name a few. But the auto industry isn't going to hit that magic 54.5 mpg mark on one technology or advancement alone – it's going to take a lot of variables working together to get it done.

One of these variables will likely be the implementation of more plastic components.  It's estimated that plastics account for about 50 percent of the materials that you'll find in cars today. But astonishingly, they only account for about 10 percent of a vehicle's total weight.  A lighter weight car means less strain on the engine, which translates directly to better gas mileage.

Here's a closer look at how plastic components can help catapult the auto industry toward 54.5 mpg by 2025: 

Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic

Historically, engineers were forced to use metal in vehicles in order to maintain the impact resistance needed for road safety.  In the past, plastics weren’t strong enough to be used as structural supports.  This reality is changing with the introduction of carbon fiber reinforced

 plastics (CFRP). Take the Corvette Stingray for instance, which featured a hood and roof crafted with CFRP.  The BMW i3, released in May 2014, is an example of a mass produced vehicle featuring carbon fiber reinforced plastic, specifically in the passenger compartment. 

Critics argue that CFRP is too expensive to produce.  For this reason, automakers are investing heavily in CFRP research and development in an attempt to develop new and cost-saving processes of manufacturing this promising material.  It’s not hard to understand why, with CFRP being 10 times stronger and 50 percent lighter than steel. 

3D Printing

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates parts, layer-by-layer on an on-demand basis, usually in plastic.  This manufacturing process has attracted a lot of attention from the public but is still mostly used for prototyping in the industrial space.  However, many companies are interested in the idea of 3D printing scale objects – like cars. The technology on this type of scale is still largely in its infancy, but if it matures, it could "print" cars on the cheap, for as little as $7,000 according to Local Motors, a Phoenix-based open source automotive company. And since they're made of plastic, they'll certainly be fuel efficient. 

Vehicle interiors, roofs, hoods and passenger compartments are one thing – but many more components are being eyed for plastic replacement in the future. The most significant of these parts might be various components that make up the vehicle chassis and certain parts in the engine. Even full body panels are a potential application of CFRP and standard plastics. 

The year 2025 is less than 10 years away and the automotive industry has a long way to go to reach 54.5 mpg. Plastic components can help.

Questions? Comments?  Let us know in the comments section below.

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