Plastics in Transportation

Progress in Motion 

On land and on sea, in the air and in space - plastics are on the move. Durable, lightweight and corrosion resistant, plastics offer fuel savings, design flexibility and high performance at lower costs to designers facing today's complex transportation needs. In automobiles, light trucks, trailers and motorcycles; in marine craft from canoes to minesweepers; in trains, buses and other mass-transit vehicles; in airplanes and space shuttles - everywhere, plastics are on the move.

On the Fast Track

During the oil crisis of the '70s, automakers discovered that plastics make cars more energy efficient by reducing weight. With that discovery, plastics began finding their way into automobile components such as bumpers, fenders, doors, safety and rear-quarter windows, headlight and sideview mirror housings, trunk lids, hoods, grilles and wheel covers.

Auto makers choose plastic parts for their durability, corrosion resistance, toughness, ease of coloring and finishing, resiliency and light weight. Plastics reduced the weight of the average passenger car built in 1988 by 145 pounds. That saves millions of gallons of gas each year and will save the energy equivalent of 21 million barrels of oil over the average lifetime of those cars. By the 1993 model year, over 250 pounds of plastics were used in the average vehicle.

Automobile designers also discovered that plastics solve one of their most complicated design problems: what to do with the fuel tank. Using plastic gives them the freedom to fit tanks into the overall concept rather than designing around the unwieldy but essential part.

Bus manufactureres, too, are turning to plastics for exterior and interior components to provide dimensional stability and impact resistance in long sections. Trains and buses use plastics in seating, window/door frames and other interior applications that require durability, cleanability and low maintenance. Subway commuters in many cities owe much of their comfort to plastics, sitting on plastic-foam seats with plastic seat covers, standing on polyester carpets and holding securely to plastic handles. The moldings, window casings and interior panels of subway cars are also plastic, and the windows are polycarbonate.

Modern over-the-road trucks owe much of their sleek design to plastics. The contoured cowls over the cabs reduce air resistance and improve fuel efficiency. Truck tanks made of advanced composites offer the same benefits.

On the Not-So-Fast Track

Bicycles (seats, handlebars, trim and accessories), motorcycles (helmets, seats, windshields and instrument panels), roller skates, skateboards, canoes, kayaks, skis and ski boots, surfboards, snowboards and advanced athletic shoes - when people move, plastics move with them.

Advanced composite kayaks, for example, powered the U.S. Olympic team to gold medals in Seoul. Composites help achieve the required shape with minimum weight and allow better weight distribution.

Making Waves

Plastics made a big splash in the nautical world when America's Cup entries began using advanced composites in futuristic designs that set the boats soaring. Stars and Stripes '88 took the Cup using composite materials originally created for aircraft, while New Zealand featured a 17-story-high mast made from advanced plastic materials. Both were harbingers of marine design undreamed of when 19th-century sailors first raced for the "Auld Mug."

The real plastics revolution in boatbuilding began in the 1940s, when fiberglass hulls made their debut. Boats were sleeker, better looking, more fuel efficient, more maneuverable and easier to maintain. No more long weekends spent scraping and repainting. Plastics, marine designers learned, put the pleasure back into pleasure boating.

Today, boatbuilders looking for strength and lighter weight turn to plastics for sails, rudders, dagger boards, centerboards, slats, spars and wings, as well as hulls.

Cleared for Takeoff

The oil crisis of the '70s taught the airline industry the same lesson it taught automakers: lightweight plastics save fuel. The oil crunch forced aerospace companies to design aircraft that used less fuel. Translated, that meant more efficient engines, improved aerodynamics and reduced aircraft weight. It also meant a role for plastics.

Today, jet engine manufacturers are increasing their use of plastic materials for the same basic reasons: reliability, efficiency, fuel savings and improved performance. In the interiors and functional parts of aircraft, plastics are meeting more and more design requirements, and as the needs increase, new plastic materials are being created to meet them. In aircraft design and production, plastics are used in the tooling process, cutting costs and enhancing flexibility.

All Systems "Go"

The air and space craft of the next century increasingly will be made of plastics. Commercial aircraft will soar with plastic wings and tails, and small composite planes will flourish.

The military will continue to depend on plastics to create even lighter aircraft with fewer parts and the ability to evade detection. The Stealth bomber, for example, uses composites of graphite-like substances mixed with resins to soak up radar energy and transform it to heat, rather than reflect it. (In a more down-to-earth application, the U.S. Army is using a composite heavy-assault bridge that spans 106 feet, supports 70 tons and folds.)

And plastics are expected to answer many of NASA's calls for materials to create and perfect high-performance supersonic/hypersonic aircraft, nuclear space power systems and space stations.

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