Over the next couple of decades, the cars people drive will look dramatically different than they do today. From electric vehicles to autonomous rides, the auto industry is in the midst of the biggest automotive revolution since Ford introduced the Model T in 1908.
According to the International Energy Agency, there could be between 57 million and 300 million electric vehicles on the world’s roads by 2030, up from 4 million vehicles today. The autonomous vehicle market, now in its infancy, could be worth $7 trillion by 2020, says Strategy Analytics.
This has Peter Votruba-Drzal excited. The global technical director of research and product development, automotive coatings and mobility at PPG is responsible for developing coatings-related products to enable electronic vehicle (EV) performance, allow cars to communicate with smart city technology and more. “This is a tremendously exciting time for us,” he says. “It’s the first time in more than 100 years that there’s an industrial revolution around power train.”
While traditional auto companies are producing more electric cars and newer technology operations, such as Google and Uber, are working on autonomous rides, PPG hopes to have its products in all types of vehicles.
The cars of tomorrow will need more specialty coatings to protect their technology, while slicker interiors will require better looking paints. “Cars used to be about the driver experience, but now the steering wheel, the aesthetics of the dash – it’s changing to more of a passenger experience,” he says. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for PPG to deliver functional and tactile coatings.”
New solutions for new technology
There are two areas in particular that Votruba-Drzal, a scientist who has a PhD in materials science and engineering, is focused on: Internet of Things (IoT) technology and EV battery technologies. With the former, autonomous vehicles work by communicating with one another and their surroundings. The cars use a laser-like technology called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that send signals that reflect off other objects, then return light to the detector. The system then constructs a map of the surrounding area based on the information received.
It only works if those LIDAR signals make it where they need to go and return to the detector on the vehicle. That’s where PPG comes in. “Right now car surfaces are mostly for beautification,” says Votruba-Drzal. “But they will need to be functional, to improve reliability. They have to be highly visible in rain and snow. Coatings must be easy to clean or have self-shedding surfaces that prevent the formation of ice.”
IoT-connected cars will also have hundreds of little antennai on them to help them communicate with their surroundings. Some of PPG’s existing products, which are used in the industrial consumer electronics space and help protect important electromagnetic technology, are now being used in the automotive market. “It’s dramatically increasing the amount of real estate for our solutions,” he says.
With electric vehicles, PPG’s coatings are being used in a variety of ways. For instance, the company is creating a cathode binder system that eliminates N-Methylpyrrolidone, a harmful solvent used in lithium-ion batteries, and helps increase battery performance.
It also has dielectric coating and thermally conductive adhesives (transmitting heat to/from the batteries while maintaining electrical isolation) that can help control the heat a battery emits, while its liquid applied sound dampening solution, called PPG Audioguard, reduces noise made by an EV’s electric motor.
Working in a quickly evolving sector requires the ability to react swiftly to its customers’ needs. In many cases, industry-standard EV and autonomous vehicle (AV) regulations are not yet in place, which can make product development a challenge. “It requires a different level of speed for our organization because there aren’t specifications yet,” says Votruba-Drzal. “Customers are innovating as they go, and so it requires us to be agile and to have a deep understanding of our clients’ problems.”
Fortunately, PPG’s mobility team includes several researchers focused exclusively on connected, autonomous, shared, and electrified (CASE) trends. That, along with their connection to their customers, helps PPG react quickly. “We’re able to innovate and build prototypes fast,” he says. “We know that we may be at an early stage, but what we do will lead to mass production.”
It’s also important to embrace failure, says Votruba-Drzal, which is something he’s been encouraging his team to do. “A concept may change direction and doesn’t move forward, but we learned a lot quickly,” he says. “We’re embracing and celebrating that.”
Fortunately, Votruba-Drzal thrives on the constant change. He may be testing all kinds of coatings, some of which may never get used, but it’s all part of the process. “We’re in an emerging transformational space,” he says. “But we know it’s going to be big and we want to be a major part of it.”