He added that, fundamentally, most OEMs are not yet designing seats from the start to make them easy to recycle. They contain clips, springs, sensors, have tight fitting leather or fabric coverings and other trim parts. This complexity, he said, makes it prohibitively expensive to economically remove and dismantle a seat, separate the components and sort them into waste streams. But this could change in the future, if legislation changes.
Looking ahead, he believes this will change. ‘I think we’re going to see more OEMs in the coming years designing a seat from the start to make it easier to recycle,’ he said. ‘At the moment, theoretically, you could get the foam back, but practically the costs are just too high and legislation is presently not in place to mandate this.’
Greener and cleaner
While the move away from internal combustion engines may seem like a threat to many technologies, Huntsman’s Bolshakova takes a different view. ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get green materials into vehicles, where historically price and performance were the only two criteria that mattered,’ she said. ‘Price is still important; don’t underestimate that. That’s why all the players in the value chain cooperate to ensure that all the technology is affordable. There are very clear expectations that their suppliers are committed and will support them to reach these goals. It has cascaded all the way down the value chain.’
Because of the energy limitations of electric vehicles, light weighting is a big focus, Evonik’s Paul said. ‘Electrical vehicle makers want to make their vehicles lighter and more efficient,’ he said. ‘But in autonomous vehicles, travel sickness can become a problem because the occupants are not facing the direction of travel. Car-makers are looking at using equipment to help overcome this. But that increases complexity and weight.’
If the change from internal combustion engines to electric propulsion were not enough, car makers face other challenges. In this as in so much else, China leads the way. Traditional car makers could be viewed as engine designers, vehicle assemblers and marketing organisations. If engines become relatively simple electric motors, this opens the field to new players.
‘In China, a number of new OEMs are entering the market, designing vehicles around what young people desire, such as large, responsive screens and innovative new features,’ Paul said. ‘Many of these new OEMs have partnered with technology companies such as Huawei, giving them huge head starts, and enabling strong growth. These customers may see established automotive brands as boring. They’re not giving them the technology that they crave.’
The good news for the polyurethane foam industry is that, no matter what brand of car these new consumers buy, they will want to be carried on something comfortable for the foreseeable future.
What does 2021 hold?
World car registrations in June 2021 were up 5.6% compared with the same month in 2020 at 7.01m units, according to LMC Automotive. In the US, sales were higher by 16.6% in June, at 1.30m units. In the same month in 2020, US dealers sold 1.11m units. Sales in Brazil and Argentina reached 204 ,000 units in the month. This compares with 158,000 units in the same month in 2020.
Chinese sales were down 12.9% on the same month last year, at 1.9m units. In the same month in 2020, Chinese dealers sold 2.2m units. In Western Europe sales, were 1.3m units in the month. This is higher than the amount sold in June 2020 by 12.1%.
The recovery from coronavirus continues, LMC Automotive’s figures suggest. In the first six months of the year, world sales reached 42m units, up 27.9% on the same period last year.
There was 29% growth in sales in the US, at 8.3m units compared with 6.4m units in the first half of 2020. In Western Europe, sales were up by a similar%age to 6.8m units from 5.3m units in the first half of 2020. There was also a 24.4% increase in sales to date in China. So far in 2021, a total of 12.2m vehicles have been sold.
Looking over the rest of the year, LMC Automotive predicts that 84.4m vehicles could be sold, compared with 77.8m in 2020.