Growing sustainability expectations and the rapid advancement of electrification are transforming how vehicles are powered. As government incentives and consumer preferences increasingly prioritize electricity over gas, the automotive industry is shifting gears to stay ahead of how electric vehicle (EV) production will impact the market.
“Electrification is irrevocably changing the automotive industry,” said Matt Zessin, Global Director, Automotive at M. Holland. “EVs are slowly gaining popularity as barriers to production ease. We’re not seeing the full push yet, but it’s time for OEMs to prepare for the eventuality.”
But EV-related opportunities for plastics manufacturers are not limited to vehicles alone. While consumer automotives will be the most direct method to gaining market share, the plastics industry will also play a vital role in supporting corporate fleet electrification and the development of charging infrastructure to help maintain momentum.
In the first quarter of 2023, the total number of EV registrations in the U.S. rose 63% compared with the same period in 2022. This popularity is driven by political action as much as consumer demand, but the U.S. is seeing slower adoption rates compared with the rest of the world. California is the exception, where EVs have grown from 2% of new-car sales to 22% in the last five years.
The U.S. government is working to encourage adoption, aiming for half of all new cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act has created a framework for reaching that goal. Seventeen states have already taken steps to adopt, or are considering enacting, a standard that mirrors the national target, which would require 100% of cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. But consumer demand is not reflecting these legislative priorities yet.
“While EVs are not a trend that will fade with time, U.S. consumers aren’t fully sold as of yet,” Matt confirmed. “Vehicle lineups themselves are one barrier for adoption. The major automotive players are making big investments and launching full EV lineups to appeal to today’s consumer, but designs and capabilities aren’t overcoming the appeal of gas-powered cars. That’s why EV innovation is an important focus in the automotive industry. As new options release in the market and charging infrastructure is more reliably accessible, plastics have a chance to make a huge mark in the EV market.”
The transition to EVs also is introducing new OEMs to the automotive market, from domestic and foreign startups to major technology companies. “Many of these new entrants have a big learning curve when it comes to manufacturing and materials technologies,” said Matt. “More and more, we’re acting as consultants in helping them design and build new models.”
According to Matt, OEMs will continue to develop plastics to support the technology and durability needed to run EVs that last. For decades, plastics have helped with corrosion resistance and lightweighting cars to improve safety and fuel economy. But, because EVs have fewer mechanical components that can wear out, they are expected to stay on the road longer. To meet this challenge, durable plastics will play an even more prominent role in their construction.
The light weight of plastic improves traveling range compared to heavier materials, and its durability increases the overall lifespan of the vehicle and its parts. Plastics used in car interiors reduce outside noise and vibrations and improve safety over steel elements used in the past. And plastics have higher designability than other materials as they can be molded and shaped easily to fit consumer expectations and brand requirements. Together, these advantages promote plastics uses for EV applications. As plastics manufacturers discover new ways to use plastics in automotive production, that trend will continue.
For example, batteries represent a significant opportunity for plastics manufacturers in EV production. “As adoption increases in the future and battery technology improves, it could become a challenge to produce enough batteries to meet demand,” Matt said. “A steady supply of battery components like trays, dividers and casings will be key to efficiently manufacturing EVs on a grand scale.”
The innovation of battery components is already underway. According to Matt, OEMs are exploring the use of propylene materials for battery casings as opposed to other popular construction methods. “EV technology is still relatively new. As we are already seeing with battery casings, we’re going to see the materials inside of a vehicle change as the technology develops,” Matt explained. “Keeping EVs on the road for a longer time will be a focus, and, in many cases, plastics can support those objectives.”
Ensuring the longevity of EVs will offer a myriad of opportunities for automotive OEMs to use plastics in new and undiscovered ways. But supporting the evolving EV market will take more than just producing enough consumer vehicles.
The demand for electrification goes beyond consumer EVs, extending to medium- and heavy-duty vehicles like buses, delivery vans, utility trucks and police fleets. These larger vehicles face equal pressure to use electricity as fuel. Similar to consumer EVs, larger vehicles will require advancements in materials and innovation to meet ambitious adoption goals.
While consumer vehicles and fleets are gaining popularity, the current state of public charging infrastructure falls short of keeping electrified vehicles running. In the U.S., the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program (NEVI) incentivizes the charging infrastructure buildout. NEVI helps states “strategically deploy” EV charging infrastructure while establishing an “interconnected network to facilitate data collection, access and reliability.”
Plastic is a critical material for manufacturing EV charging stations. “Polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) and other higher-value plastic resins are being used to construct connectors for charging stations,” Matt said. “We have only begun to scratch the surface of how plastics can support EV charging. Innovation and material testing will be important as we discover the full value of plastics in the electrified automotive market.”
M. Holland works with its partners to develop and implement new EV-related applications for plastic. Our deep knowledge in the automotive space and strong network of suppliers puts us in a unique position to consult on plastics applications and innovations for electric vehicles. For more information on available products or potential use cases, visit our Automotive market page.