Autonomous cars have the potential to change the driving paradigm. Freed from driving, passengers in an autonomous car will be more interested in the look, feel and functionality of the interior cabin.

To meet this challenge, automakers are rethinking interior car design to accommodate passengers’ free time to engage with electronics and entertainment centers and take advantage of more personal space and panoramic views. Automotive OEMs are seeking to affordably differentiate their vehicles with luxury enhancements and personalized features.
 
High-performance materials will be crucial in helping automakers and suppliers arrive at their destination. In fact, IHS Chemical Insights projects that by 2020 the average car will incorporate nearly 771 pounds of plastics, 330 pounds more than in 2014. Let’s take a closer look at how advanced materials are driving the industry forward.
 Polycarbonate substrates and films are used in several features to cost-effectively personalize interior cabins in autonomous cars with panoramic roof systems, interior lighting, decorative trim and surface finishes. Polycarbonate materials also will be instrumental in helping automotive OEMs meet Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards that require fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. 
 

Panoramic roof systems

Large, transparent surfaces such as panoramic roofs, transparent body panels or side/rear windows are a key design aspect of autonomous vehicles. Polycarbonate resins already provide styling, lightweighting and assembly benefits that will continue for autonomous vehicle applications. 
 
Polycarbonate and polycarbonate blends also help lighten the load. A polycarbonate panoramic roof can cut weight by up to 50 percent compared with glass roofs, resulting in improved fuel efficiency and decreased CO2 emissions. One pound of polycarbonate glazing saves between 31 pounds and 48.5 pounds of CO2 emissions during its total lifecycle compared with conventional glass. The materials also provide outstanding impact strength and high clarity.
 

Lighting 

Glare from interior lighting will not be an issue for passengers in an autonomous vehicle. While automakers are already using different light colors, ambient lighting and display screens to create a more luxurious, personalized atmosphere, these features will expand in autonomous vehicles. 
 
For instance, at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 was one of the most talked about concept cars for its futuristic interior. The vehicle featured lighted surfaces and lightpipes to create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Materials such as reflective white polycarbonate grades and LED grades feature durability, light transmission and light diffusion properties that can help bring these interior lighting concepts into reality. 
 

Decorative trim 

While luxury vehicles have long featured a unique level of comfort, this sense of luxury is now finding its way into mid-class vehicles. Affordable luxury can be accomplished through utilizing resin systems designed for a process known as direct coating/direct skinning (DCDS). The technology simplifies the supply chain to efficiently produce parts with customizable color, texture and comfort.
 
DCDS combines conventional thermoplastic injection molding with reaction injection molding in a single tool – delivering a hard polycarbonate blend substrate with an ultraviolet-stabilized, scratch- and chemical-resistant polyurethane coating or aliphatic polyurethane self-skinning foam.  
 

Surface finishes

As cabins become more personalized, automakers will seek more enhancements. Adding features to vehicles could increase costs, leading to an even greater need to produce parts inexpensively. To accommodate improved functionality with elegant – even luxurious – appearance, automotive OEMs are seeking durable, low-gloss materials that eliminate painting during manufacturing. Standard polycarbonate blends typically produce high-gloss surfaces, requiring special tool textures or paints to deliver the desired low-gloss appearance. 
 
Other materials that achieve low-gloss appearance, such as polypropylene or low-gloss acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, tend to have durability issues, such as poor scratch and mar performance or poor weathering and UV stability. 
 
A new line of polycarbonate films are ideal for innovative display technologies. The multi-layer films offer extensive freedom for shaping, even when it comes to large displays.
 

Industry in high gear

The function of the interior car cabin is evolving, and the promise of autonomous vehicles will further heighten the need for materials and design elements that offer personalization and luxury enhancements. Material and process innovation is the key to turning today’s concepts into tomorrow’s reality. 
 
Bruce Benda is the head of Polycarbonate Market Development for Covestro, a leading supplier of high-tech polymer materials.

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