Stronger, faster, safer and lighter and greener than ever before.

By: Jack Roberts

Today, with technology driving all aspects of vehicle design and performance, highly advanced transportation systems are moving people and cargo at the unprecedented levels of efficiency required by today's fast-moving world and the Internet-fueled global economy that powers it.

New automotive systems and technology require new materials to craft and sustain these new vehicle systems. Those materials need to be safe, reliable, durable and environmentally-friendly. Here a few highlights.

Up in the air

New generations of airliners like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are redefining air travel today with modern, comfortable interiors and advanced engines that are up to 20 percent more fuel efficient than a Boeing 767 while being faster, quieter and releasing fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

However, designing comfortable and safe modern aircraft interiors remains one of the most difficult challenges facing engineers today. Materials used inside aircraft cabins must meet advanced and stringent standards for fire, smoke and toxicity while remaining lightweight, durable and comfortable.

Stimulite® by Supracor is one such new seating material for aircraft. Stimulite is a medically-proven, flexible form of honeycomb material crafted from BASF's Elastollan thermoplastic polyurethane and designed as an alternative material to use in aircraft seat cushions and sleeping surfaces. It provides long-term seating comfort to help reduce passenger aches and pains. Stimulite is lightweight and features a low overall profile that helps optimize limited space onboard aircraft.

The fusion-bonded TPU honeycomb material means that more than 90 percent of Stimulite's cellular matrix is actually open space. This gives it inherently lightweight and remarkable resiliency. But more importantly to a long-suffering frequent flyer, the material has a naturally-occurring "memory" which allows it to provide a uniform weight distribution. This translates to a much higher level of comfort for airline passengers delivered at a fraction of the thickness found in conventional foam aircraft cushions.

Mass transit moves ahead

Railroads are also on the verge of their own technological leap forward, from the far-fetched to the belated introduction of proven systems and technologies developed decades ago.

On the extreme end of the equation is Telsa Motors CEO Elon Musk, who has made headlines lately advocating research in a world-connecting Hyperloop transportation system—primarily through a series of engineering contests and ongoing design research today.

A Hyperloop system functions much like a high-speed train does today. But the similarities are limited: Conventional high-speed rail travel is limited thanks to friction created by air resistance and contact between a train's wheels and the rail surfaces.

"...enjoy breakfast in New York City, lunch in San Francisco and have dinner in Shanghai."

A Hyperloop sidesteps these problems by shooting passenger or cargo pods that ride either on a cushion of air or are magnetically levitated through a fully-enclosed, low-pressure tube. Musk has famously likened his Hyperloop concept to a cross between the Concord supersonic jetliner, an air hockey table like the one you used to have in your parent's basement and a rail gun.

In theory, Musk says a fully-functioning system would allow passengers to travel safely and comfortably at hypersonic speeds making it possible for future travelers to enter the Hyperloop and enjoy breakfast in New York City, lunch in San Francisco and have dinner in Shanghai.

And although the concept sounds far-fetched, real-world tests are taking place today, with proposed beginning routes being considered that will run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and a European route running from Amsterdam to Paris.

A system more recognizable to most people today is a regenerative braking system similar in concept to those found on hybrid automobile drivetrains today. These systems can recover much of kinetic energy generated by a braking train and convert it back into usable electrical energy.

Typically, this energy has proven difficult to store. But in the proposed system, being tested in Europe, brake energy can be transmitted across the railroad grid to give a power boost to another train accelerating, as long as that train is within about 25 miles of the braking train. Another system, developed by Siemens, uses "static frequency converters" to convert the kinetic energy generated by braking trains into power that can be fed into municipal power grids. This system is now up and running successfully in more than 20 locations across Germany.

A lighter, faster, Pony Car

“The automotive industry is at a tipping point—consumer preferences, fuel economy regulations and innovative technologies are all inspiring a new vehicle landscape," said Brian Shaner, market segment manager for BASF. Recently, BASF contributed technology for the hotly anticipated 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang, helping it maintain the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio possible and deliver the white-knuckle performance these cars are famous for.

Ford Performance asked automotive component supplier Magna International Inc. to create a grille opening reinforcement made of carbon fiber to keep weight down while guaranteeing smooth air flow into the engine compartment.

"High performing materials are going to play a crucial role in achieving the lighter weight, highly durable, comfortable vehicles of tomorrow."

Magna, in turn, invited BASF to suggest lightweight material concepts, which ultimately resulted in the development of a carbon fiber-reinforced grill opening that was 24 percent lighter than the prior plastic-metal hybrid design. “High performing materials are going to play a crucial role in achieving the lighter weight, highly durable, comfortable vehicles of tomorrow," added Shaner.

Shaner explained to Automotive World that the new grille reinforcement is manufactured with BASF's Ultramid® polyamide thermoplastic resin with 20 percent short carbon fiber composition and is high-performing while reducing component weight.

It also has a great aesthetic quality highly appealing to performance car fans. Typically, the grille opening reinforcements are hidden with a beauty cover. However, due to the appearance of the new part, Ford chose to forgo the beauty cover, contributing to an additional loss of 1.9 pounds bringing the total weight savings to 45 percent.

Big rigs keep on rolling

Commercial trucking is undergoing a technological revolution as well. Modern tractor-trailers today are lighter and sleeker than ever before. Trucking was late to the aerodynamics game. But a host of new, durable and lightweight materials have led to the introduction of a whole host of aerodynamic devices designed to smooth airflow around a tractor-trailer. These devices reduce turbulence around, under and behind a tractor and trailer, and can boost vehicle fuel economy by as much as 10 to 15 percent at 66 mph. These advances, combined with integrated, automated drivetrains and lower-horsepower, and fuel-efficient diesel engines, have boosted fleet fuel economy numbers dramatically over the past decade. Today, it is not unheard of for big rigs to log an average of 9 mpg or better on cross-country runs. Many fleets today routinely hit 10 mpg and are actively pursuing technologies that may push these numbers as high as 12 or even 13 mpg in the near future.

And while everybody has heard of Google and Apple's efforts to develop self-driving, or autonomous passenger cars, trucking is getting into the game as well. Last year, Freightliner, a division of Daimler-Benz, introduced a fully-functioning autonomous Class 8 tractor.

For now, Freightliner says it envisions the system as a sort of advanced cruise control that can give drivers a much-needed break on long, monotonous stretches of highway or in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. Freightliner envisions a time soon when commercial trucks will communicate with autonomous passenger cars in traffic and all vehicles on a roadway will in turn communicate with smart infrastructure to insure smooth, continuous traffic flow and—hopefully—make traffic jams a thing of the past.

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