Why Haven't We Heard About It?
If so much good is being done with biobased materials, why aren't automakers talking about it? They certainly haven't been shy about promoting hybrid vehicles, or their efforts to develop hydrogen fuel cells, or almost anything else environmentally oriented.
Yet, when you read automakers' environmental reports — and nearly every car company produces one these days — it's darn near impossible to find a mention of biobased materials. If it does appear, it's typically buried in a section on recyclability.
Why the hush-hush?
One reason is that the use of biobased materials isn't at the top of most automakers' environmental priority lists. For example, Honda is much more focused on reducing the use of harmful materials in vehicles (such as lead in batteries and heavy metals in catalytic converters), and increasing the fuel economy of its entire fleet. So even though the company is using wood-fiber parts in the Pilot, the decision was driven more by engineering considerations than by corporate philosophy.
Similarly, GM is focusing its environmental research efforts on alternative fuels, such as E85 (a blend of 85-percent corn-based ethanol), as well as the hydrogen infrastructure needed to make fuel-cell vehicles a reality.
The notable exceptions are DaimlerChrysler and the BMW Group, both of which have identified biobased materials as a key part of their overall environmental strategy. As BMW says, "In view of the ever scarcer availability of resources, the use of natural fibers provides an exceptionally attractive solution, both ecologically and technically."
DaimlerChrysler goes a step further, identifying biobased materials as one of the two key parts of its plan to create a global sustainability network (the other is using renewable energies to replace conventional fuels). "These are two major elements of the corporate activities geared to the environmentally compatible car of the future," according to the company.
Ford also has turned the spotlight on biobased materials — though more so in years past. The Model U concept car shown at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show can trace its lineage back to what has to be the world's first environmentally oriented concept vehicle: the Soybean Car unveiled by Henry Ford in 1941.
Evidently, Henry was fascinated by soybeans back in the '30s, and he started a whole R&D lab to find commercial uses for the crop. By 1934, the lab was turning out small gearshift knobs and horn buttons made from soy extracts. A couple years later, it unveiled soy-based upholstery, followed by soy-composite body panels. To show off the latter's durability, Henry Ford gathered a group of journalists together in 1940. He swung an axe at a demonstration car's soy-composite trunk lid. When the axe bounced off, the car was unscathed, and Henry got himself plenty of publicity.
It has been 65 years since an automaker demonstrated that much showmanship with regard to biobased materials. Still, today's automobile manufacturers and their suppliers are quietly demonstrating their ingenuity and dedication to these materials.
We suspect the ripple effect of their actions and research will have far-reaching effects, touching farmers and small business owners around the world, reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil and, by achieving a better CO2 balance over a vehicle's lifetime, maybe even reducing greenhouses gases. So, we commend them on their efforts and look forward to the day when we've got chicken feathers in our headliners and soybeans in our seats.