The hidden layers of smart mobility
The oncoming technological freight train we call “smart” mobility—autonomous driving, connected vehicles, powertrain electrification, and mobility services—will transform consumers’ relationships with automobiles. These new mobility models also will dramatically change the way vehicles must interact with their driving environments, whether in congested, urban settings; in parking garages and tunnels; or along lonely stretches of rural highway.
Each new type of personal and commercial mobility will also change how longtime industry partners deliver their products to OEMs as well as what these customers can accomplish with those products. The changes will often be momentous, even in cases when the products themselves exist as microscopically thin layers.
Consider automotive paint, long a product of advanced science but a category that has traditionally served the roles of beautification and protection of vehicle surfaces. Automotive coatings are quickly assuming additional, functional roles in helping solve multiple near-term challenges facing OEMs and their key systems suppliers and removing future obstacles to achieving the safety, communication, performance, and usability required of tomorrow’s vehicles.
Seeing and being seen
Beyond the sophisticated intelligence that enables autonomous driving systems to interpret the surrounding environment, coatings applied to vehicle exteriors, interiors, and the infrastructure will enhance and enable safe, reliable mobility.
The transfer of information between vehicles and their operating environments relies on LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and radar technologies to deliver a consistent stream of high-quality imagery and other information. We know, however, that LiDAR requires the right level of reflectivity from detected surfaces, and that, traditionally, dark-colored vehicles, bridge abutments, and other objects can be significantly less reflective. Our organization is developing a wide range of colors and styles for coatings that are not limited by LiDAR or radar reflectivity, such as topcoat technologies that allow for more intense reflectivity of darker colors, even at varying angles.
While tomorrow’s vehicles will be able to perform many impressive new tasks, they will always face challenging weather and road conditions, where water, dirt, and other elements could obstruct exterior-mounted sensors critical to autonomous driving. This challenge can be solved through durable, easy-clean coatings that will help protect sensors and keep them clean.
Additional layers of “visibility” will come through specialized coatings that enable radar transmitters to be seamlessly packaged behind the vehicle fascia and other coated surfaces. This is not currently possible due to potential interference from a variety of vehicle substrates and conventional coatings. We see this as an opportunity to further develop coatings that will help OEMs enhance vehicle aesthetics and reduce costs while enabling safe, reliable autonomous operation.
Reliable, responsible electrification
Coating innovations are already making important contributions to powertrain electrification. At the battery-cell level, we recently introduced a cathode coating that enables longer cell life and equal or better performance while eliminating the use of the toxic solvent NMP (N-Methylpyrrolidone). This new technology has several additional benefits, including faster and more stable mixing and dramatically increased processing and application flexibility. We are also working in partnership with a research organization to develop anode materials that can store more energy than conventional lithium-ion battery materials.
At the module and pack levels, advanced coatings will be needed to prevent corrosion, offer passive fire protection, and deliver other important benefits while complementing virtually any thermal-management approach.
These hidden layers of science and technology are vital to helping OEMs solve the puzzle of smart mobility. They will play key enabling roles not only for vehicle manufacturers, but also regulatory authorities who ultimately must establish standards that ensure safe, reliable transportation in all environments.
We are at the defining moment of modern mobility, with every industry participant contributing to what ultimately will be a seamless, fully integrated transportation system serving tens of millions of consumers each day and transforming the commercial transport industry. The possibilities are fascinating, with each requiring new layers of imagination and innovation.