For composite applications currently specified on production vehicles, the amount of material consumed is proportional to the number of units produced. Global vehicle production growth is expected to be modest in 2019 and the near future, with annual growth rates of about 2 percent. Most unit production growth is anticipated to come from China and southeast Asia, with mature markets, including the United States and Western Europe, relatively flat. Therefore, composites will need to win new applications from steel and aluminum to realize significant volume growth.
The competition for applications on mass production automobiles is fierce, with materials winning based on the value they provide in terms of cost versus performance and weight. Because a primary driver of composite material selection is weight savings, the priority OEMs place on weight reduction will be paramount to future adoption of composite materials. Regional fuel economy standards and adoption of electric powertrains will play a crucial role in the future of composites in the automotive market.
Fuel economy standards and emission limits have been a primary driver of lightweight material adoption on new vehicles in the recent past. Lighter vehicles require less energy to start and stop, improving fuel efficiency. As a result of higher fuel economy standards imposed through 2021, aluminum and higher strength steel content in light vehicles has increased sharply, along with rising use of and interest in GFRP and CFRP.
Stringent fuel economy and emission regulations from 2020 to 2022 will continue to drive demand for lightweight materials. (See Figure 3.) Europe is the established center of the automotive composites world due to government and consumer incentives for small, lightweight and efficient vehicles. The United States and Canada are the only countries with established regulations beyond 2022, but the United States is currently considering relaxing regulations after 2021. Less challenging fuel economy regulations would remove incentive for adoption of lightweight composite materials in North America, which would ensure that composite technology leadership and material consumption remains elsewhere.
The emergence of new technologies in automobiles will also factor into future demand for composites in the industry. The impact that electric powertrains and autonomous vehicles will have on automotive materials are subjects of great debate at the moment. Electric vehicles have large batteries that must be enclosed to provide protection from the environment and road debris. Driverless cars will change the way people interact with vehicles and create new demands and desires for interior features. The timing and magnitude of these technological shifts will dictate whether these are attractive opportunities for composites in the short or long term.