Materials of the future may appear to be a cliché statement in today’s ecosystem because the future is ever changing for the millennial consumers of mobility solutions. The physical and chemical properties that were expected from materials in yesteryears are history already, and very soon in the upcoming mobility platforms there will be others. The innovations and technologies for energy efficiency did not exist to match expectations of mass market solutions and regulatory norms.
The focus in the initial days and even now is on extent of recyclability. The end of life of materials, a key aspect, is continually researched on for its ability to survive in the hostile applications of the automotive world. That resulted in implementation of soya and jute, wood dust and other types of normally neglected by-products. These natural materials have the flexibility to be molded in different form factors but for various reasons did not get popular in the automotive ecosystem.
Composites from aircraft industry mainly have permeated in the automotive industry to be able to match up to the business model and consumer demands. Composites have been developed in different combinations, including impregnation of nanomaterials to enhance chemical properties, operate in high combustion, exhaust systems’ applications, endurance and wear. The metal matrix composites are used in brakes along with titanium solutions for clutches and e-mobility applications. Materials exist in semi-fluid forms (graphene) developed ingeniously as sprays for effective thermal management and for avoidance of scratches, non-stick abilities on windscreen at high speed during heavy downpours or snow driving.
While fuel economy of a vehicle is always a high attribute due to energy security and stricter regulations, the innovations and focus continues on lightweighting to be the major enabler of this attribute. Carbon fibre & aluminium components, body panels & systems, magnesium for under-hood & powertrain components, plastics for non-crash components as well as interiors, and many other such developments are seen in automobiles.
Smart material integrated applications will be able to sense the body temperature of occupants and moderate the temperature of their seats and in parallel elevate or reduce cabin temperatures. This will be one of the future levers in energy efficiency. Innovations where smart materials change colours of interiors of a vehicle cabin, based on mood and fatigue of the driver and occupants, are on the horizon.
Due to styling and need for speed of product launches, materials’ ability for adaptability to different form factors has already integrated other component manufacturers. They are developing their products to integrate with styling and safety, and other attributes in the cahier-de-charge (specifications). Many OEMs have formability of materials above other properties, which helps smart technologies penetrate in mass market solutions with better styled vehicle platforms that are compact and lighter, safer and offer higher fuel efficiency.
Of course, self-healing and self-sealing material properties and applications have broadened the scope from just being solutions for interiors to solutions for on-road and off-road applications. The body panel damages, to wear and tear of upholstery and tyres that self-seal, are examples of the growing footprint of such properties of smart materials. Intelligent colour changing paint solutions for body panels have been in existence in high-end vehicles. Innovative materials with integrated electronics and solar cells are becoming popular in e-mobility.
Over the years, the use of a variety of materials has increased with better cost and sustainability in mobility platforms. The application ratio of steel and iron has been offset with such materials. Going forward, this trend will continue since it provides manufacturing efficiency, in terms of time and cost. Further, smart materials in integrated components that provide affordable flexible pragmatic solutions are the future in mobility.