Dented bumpers that mend themselves.
Grab handles that flip outward to meet the hands of exiting passengers.
Air dams that boost fuel economy, automatically lowering when vehicles reach a certain highway speed but remaining tucked out of the way when not needed.
These are included in a batch of first-generation applications using “smart” or “active” materials General Motors Corp. scientists believe eventually will displace small motors and other devices that run a multitude of functions in today's vehicles.
The materials are nothing new, as GM engineers and scientists point out recently. But they are being used in new ways as scientists form them into actuators and sensors powered with fine, low-current wires. “We're in the beginning of a revolution for a new class of materials,” says Alan Taub, GM executive director of GM Research & Development.
“Our breakthrough is not the material, it's the designing of actuators around it,” he adds.
The new functions represent the “tip of the iceberg,” Taub says. GM plans to showcase the first uses of smart materials on vehicles produced in 2010, but Taub is mum on the application or vehicle specifics.
Many of the functions build on previous material innovations. The company already uses an aluminum-forming process for lighter-weight body panels, such as on the '04 Malibu Maxx lift gate; lower-cost polymer nanocomposites, or polymers bonded at the molecular level, to create stronger step assist panels on the Safari and Astro vans; and magnetorheological fluids for improving shock and strut performance.
GM researchers now are examining hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicle systems, currently operated with small motors, as potential targets for smart materials.
“We're prioritizing which uses make the most sense,” says Nancy Johnson, a lab group manager at GM R&D.
Jan Aase, director of the Vehicle Development Research Lab at Warren-based GM R&D, says the materials constitute the “trifecta” for auto R&D: lighter weight, greater durability and lower costs.
Aase says many current motor systems costing between $5 and $6 could be replaced with $1.50 per-unit smart material systems.
Such technologies easily may be marketed to customers. Aase cites the example of adjustable fuel-saving air dams that elevate to avoid concrete block dividers when a driver parks a vehicle.
“When you pull out you hear some dramatic noises, meaning that the air dam is now sitting on the curb and not on the car,” he says, noting Corvette owners might be particularly interested in such a function due to the car's low ground clearance.
Most of GM's demonstrations involve “by-wire” integration, meaning the materials act with the help of a low-voltage current, usually 5 amps or less.
The auto maker is pulling the curtain back on the early technologies in part because it has protected its intellectual property, having secured 40 patents, with another 135 pending. And while not the only vehicle manufacturer pursuing smart materials, Taub believes GM is furthest along.
GM is collaborating with HRL Laboratories, a Malibu, CA-based joint research lab with Boeing Corp., as well as the University of Michigan, to develop potential advance materials usage.
If GM leverages its full purchasing weight, there's no doubt the supply base will need to undergo another big change in its product offerings. Taub declines to mention suppliers with whom GM is partnering, but says he expects to see more joint ventures between materials-focused companies and traditional industry suppliers in the near future.