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09-Jul-2019

This article was originally published on guardian.com as part of series of articles on innovation sponsored by Henkel

‘Smartphones with wheels’: what the car of the future will be like

Electronic components in modern car manufacturing

By Duncan Jefferies

Tomorrow’s vehicles will be equipped with hundreds of mini computers, use sound-dampening foam for a close-to-silent ride, and be as light as possible.

If you can remember the days when an iPod connecter was a high-tech feature in new cars, today’s vehicles – with their advanced driver assistance systems and heads-up displays, which beam information in front of the windscreen – might seem positively futuristic. But according to Michael Todd, global head of innovation at Henkel Adhesive Technologies, the car industry is on the cusp of even bigger changes. “The car of the future will be more like a smartphone with wheels than the kind of automobiles we see today,” he says. “It will be digitally operated and autonomous, and it will need to entertain us too.” It will be more sustainable as well, as the transition to electric and hybrid models continues apace.

Here are some of the features your future set of wheels might include:

Larger infotainment systems

Driverless vehicles are likely to include infotainment systems that are bigger and curvier than anything seen to date, allowing us to work or watch something while we’re driven to our destination. In fact, Todd claims that by 2025 there won’t be switches or dials in new cars. “They’ll have completely digital, very elegant 3D interfaces.”

Clear, liquid adhesives, which are used to bond the layers of glass that feature in today’s smartphone screens, will help to improve the optical performance of these super-sized infotainment systems. Antiscratch coatings will also be essential once screens extend right across the car.

“If I scratch my phone, which I probably will one of these days, next year I’ll get a new one,” says Todd. “If I scratch the display on my car, I’m going to be really upset, because I’m going to have that car for a while. So while the requirements are the same, everything has to be higher performance.”

Better acoustic dampening

It may not get as much press attention as autonomous driving, but acoustic dampening will be an integral feature of the car of the future. “You’re going to start hearing things you never heard before while driving,” says Todd.

Acoustic dampening foams and material inserts already feature in today’s cars. “There are foams inside the B pillar [between the front and rear doors], there are foams in the roof, there are foams and different kinds of acoustic materials in the floor ... and we’re going to have more and more of them in new [car] designs.”

Saber Fallah, lecturer in vehicle and mechatronic systems at the University of Surrey, adds that AI and machine-learning techniques could even play a role in dampening noise inside the car, while Todd says that acoustic materials can serve a dual purpose – by acting as thermal insulation, reducing the power needed to cool the vehicle.

The future car is lighter, more efficient and more sustainable

The future car is lighter, more efficient and more sustainable

Cooler batteries

“The main bottleneck for electric vehicles (EVs) is batteries,” says Fallah. In simple terms, these batteries need to have greater energy capacity and – particularly when the car is being charged – produce less heat.

“Companies want you to be able to recharge your car in about 15 minutes,” says Todd. “We’re not there yet but charging these batteries very quickly will generate huge amounts of heat, which then has to be managed.”

Solutions, such as Henkel’s thermal enhancement materials, can be added to battery cells during the production cycle to help keep them cool. “Somewhere in the neighbourhood of a gram of material goes into a device like a smartphone,” says Todd. “But you’re talking about kilos for an EV battery.”

Lighter construction materials

In the 1960s, almost every part of a vehicle was bolted, welded or fastened together with clips. Today, most of these parts are bonded with adhesives. And in future, says Todd, “there will be almost nothing mechanically fastened, because it adds weight”, which adds to the drain on an EV’s battery.

Using lighter materials such as carbon fibre could also help the cars of the future travel for another 50100km, says Todd, which could be a real game-changer in the highly competitive automobile industry.
However, the combination of different materials could also pose some interesting engineering challenges. “How do you bond a carbon fibre roof to an aluminium B pillar?” Todd asks. “Those materials have different properties, they expand and contract at different rates. So if you use a normal epoxy adhesive after one hot/cold cycle it’s going to rip apart.”
The materials used for the construction of the car could even help power it one day. “If they [car manufacturers] use solar panels or a regenerative braking system, they could potentially store energy inside the body of the car,” Fallah explains.

Increased computing power

Today’s high-end cars contain between 10 and 20 mini computers, which help to run the engine, entertainment system, sensors and more. The car of the future, however, will contain upwards of a hundred. “The computing power is going to be enormous,” says Todd, “much more than you find today in a normal house, or even in a normal office.”

Some of this computing power, together with hundreds of optical and acoustic sensors, will be used for automated driving systems. Thermal interface materials for electronics will help to spread out the heat along the surface of these components. “Even the peripherals around the vehicle will need thermal management materials to stop them overheating,” says Todd.

Safe autonomous driving could also depend on computers and sensors outside the vehicle. “Cars will be connected,” says Fallah. “They will need to talk to each other, and they will need to talk to infrastructure to make them safe for driving.”