Dr. Hendrik Mainka (left), lead engineer and project manager, and Michael Rademacher, materials research engineer of Volkswagen of Americas Inc., examine a CFRP prototype of the Touareg lift gate. Photo Credit: Volkswagen Engineering & Planning Center

Q: What challenges remain that prevent further use of composites in the automotive industry?

Just recently the University of California, Santa Barbara published research on plastic waste. The fact that over 8 billion [metric] tons of plastics have been created [since large-scale production began in the 1950s] – and more than 5.5 billion tons are now in the waste stream – is staggering. Out of all that plastic, only 9 percent has been recycled, which as an industry we need to address. This is why we are looking heavily into thermoplastic solutions, natural fibers and the use of recycled fibers.

In the case of repairs or replacements, a study our team conducted with Hult International School of Business has shown that it may be more cost effective to just replace damaged components. This allows us to recycle the material and eliminate the potential for incorrect repairs. We want all of our cars to provide excellent protection to the occupants, so it is crucial we get the chance to assess the damage in case of an accident.

Q: What research is Volkswagen doing to advance composites technology?

Composites research is and has been a part of the Volkswagen Group Worldwide for many years. The Product Innovations team here in the U.S. is very proud of our work with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). Our biggest project is the formulation of an ultra-low density, low volatile organic compound (VOC) Sheet Molding Compound (SMC) and a post-processing free Class A SMC for exterior body panels. With this research, we will have the production technologies and material for our first large-volume application of composites not just for the vehicles produced here in the U.S., but all of our vehicles worldwide.

Q: What’s the biggest threat to composites usage in the automotive sector?

The biggest threat for OEMs is cost. This is why we have seen its use limited to performance and/or luxury vehicles. It really breaks down to two topics – material costs and manufacturing costs. This is what we are attempting to change with our IACMI research, though. A solution that not only saves weight but is cost effective for large volumes. Altogether, with increased emission standards and the push for more efficient vehicles, OEMs have a driving force toward the future of lightweight and e-mobility. As a group, we plan to launch more than 30 new battery electric vehicles (BEVs) by 2025.