Automotive Sustainability

Plastic Helps Carmakers Build More Fuel Efficient, Safer Cars

“Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities – acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency – can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.” 

Ford Motor Company

Automakers Use Lightweight Plastic to Improve Fuel Efficiency

Carmakers are squeezing more miles out of a gallon of gas in part by replacing heavier materials with lighter weight plastic.  

Today’s cars on average are made of about 50% plastic by volume but only 10% by weight. Increased fuel efficiency cuts auto emissions, reduces our nation’s energy use and saves us money at the pump. The use of plastic in automobiles saves considerable energy over the life of the vehicles. 

Studies demonstrate that lightweight plastic components help cut greenhouse gas emissions from our cars and trucks – use of heavier alternative materials would lead to significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions. 

“A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6% – 8% fuel economy improvement.”


– Department of Energy

Safety: Plastic/Composites Help Protect Vehicle Occupants

Safety advances in today’s vehicles save countless lives and reduce injuries. 

Plastic enables air bags, seat belts, and safety glass plus energy absorbing innovations such as front-end modules, modular seats and bumpers that protect vehicle occupants every day. 

In addition, fiber-reinforced polymer composites (such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastic) absorb multiple times the crash energy of steel. In fact, polymer composites can not only reduce vehicle baseline weight compared to high strength steel but can exceed NHTSA crash requirements. That’s one reason racing cars tend to be made with super strong yet lightweight plastic composites.  

Plastic Enables Self-Driving Vehicles, Advanced Propulsion Systems and Infrastructure

Autonomous (self-driving) vehicles can reduce accidents caused by human error and provide freedom of mobility for underserved members of society, including the elderly and disabled. 

Lightweight plastic and composites will enable more flexible vehicle interiors and help offset the extra weight of self-driving vehicle sensors, cameras, wireless 5G transmitters and LiDAR (light detection and ranging). All are necessary for autonomous vehicles to sense the road, each other, signals, signs, refueling stations, tolls and adjacent architecture. 

Plastic will be key for reducing vehicle weight in electric vehicles (EV) and batteries. For example, EV batteries – which today typically comprise about a third of vehicle mass – continue to shed weight in part due to lightweight plastic battery packs, which can improve vehicle range. 

And plastic is critically important to create the infrastructure that supports advanced propulsion and autonomous vehicles. Charging and refueling stations made with plastic and composites are impact and corrosion resistant, help prevent tampering, provide electrical insulation safety and can withstand many extreme weather conditions.  

Plastic Helps Transition to Circular Economy

Automotive plastic and composites companies are working with automakers to reduce the environmental impacts of vehicles. Examples include designing vehicle systems and components for end-of-life recyclability and using recycled plastic throughout the vehicle, such as in headlamps, bumpers, lift gates, seat cushions and upholstery, insulation and critical engine components. 

Many major automakers also have set goals and begun implementing initiatives to improve the circularity of their operations, including their use of plastic. Plastic makers are committed to working together and with part suppliers and automakers to help the automotive industry transition toward a more circular economy, in which plastic and other materials are reused instead of discarded. 

A recent study found the value of the circular economy is expected to reach $4.5 trillion in the United States by 2030 – with $400 to $600 billions of benefit to automotive companies and their suppliers.  

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