• Dec 7, 2007
John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

I first came across what they call "smart materials" back in the early 1980s. It was at the SAE show and a company called Raychem was exhibiting how it used this technology to make spark plug wires for Formula One cars.

Turns out F1 cars would vibrate the wires right off the plugs. So Raychem came up with a kind of "smart" rubber that made it practically impossible for the wires to vibrate off. All you needed was a hair dryer!

With the Raychem wires all you had to do was snap them on and blast them with a heat gun. They'd mold themselves around the plugs so tight that you'd have to chisel them off.

Follow the jump to continue.



Smart materials are also referred to as shape memory alloys, or shape memory polymers. They will "remember" their shape when you heat them up or run an electric current through them. In other cases you can heat them up to make them pliable, mold them into the shape you want, and once they cool off they'll lock into that shape.

Maybe you've seen this technology used to make wire frames for eye glasses. With smart frames you can mangle and twist them all up. But run them under a tap of hot water and they'll miraculously morph back into their original shape and fit perfectly on your face.

Automakers have been interested in these materials for a long time. Imagine a car that used "smart" fenders. If you banged them up, all the body shop would have to do is blast them with a heat gun and watch them revert to their original shape. But cost and high-volume manufacturing hurdles prevented automakers from using these materials. Until now.

General Motors has been pretty sneaky about putting new materials into production without letting the outside world know about them. By keeping its mouth shut, GM got a jump on the competition. For example, on the Malibu Maxx it used a process called quick plastic forming to make the rear steel hatch. This cut weight and cost and was in production for nearly two years before any of its competitors, or us in the media, caught on. It also used nanotechnology on the running boards of its full-size SUVs to make them lighter and more scratch resistant. Again, it was in production before anyone found out.

But this time they're not being so sneaky. Now GM is giving us a peek at how it plans to use smart materials because it wants to corner the market on automotive applications. That's a key point. It's the applications that GM is patenting, not the materials. The company believes it's already way out in front of all other automakers, and a critical way to claim intellectual property rights is to be the first in the public domain with them.

GM's idea is to use smart materials to replace a lot of actuators on cars. Just about anything that turns or twists or moves can be actuated with these materials. This means you can take an electric motor and replace it with a strip of plastic with a wire attached to it. Talk about slashing cost and weight!

Better still, smart materials will fit into small spaces where you'd never be able fit an electric motor. That opens up even more applications. Here's another example: how many Corvette owners have scraped the front chin spoiler off their car when they pulled into a steep driveway, or hit a parking block? With smart materials it would be a no-brainer to keep that spoiler retracted until the car hit, say, 25 miles an hour and then deploy it.

GM is being pretty tight lipped on exactly which applications it's going after, but all you have to do is use your imagination. Why not use these materials for adjusting the outside mirrors, ejecting a CD, popping the trunk open, or applying the parking brake? Take a look at the accompanying video to see what else GM is considering.

This could be one of the most important breakthroughs in materials that we've seen in the auto industry in a long time, and the first applications should show up in the 2010 model year.

For more info about smart materials, click here.

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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 11 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      GM keeps bitchin about CAFE standards but making cars lighter goes a long way towards reaching the goal.

      plus it'd be great to have a ding resistent car :D
      • 7 Years Ago
      These developments make me feel like a $12 trillion debt and a service sector economy are no match for a resurgence of American innovation.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Great segment - something to look forward to in the near future.
      • 7 Years Ago
      "If GM is so willing to put expensive materials on the exterior, why did they wait so long to put them in the interior?"

      And you missed how the Malibu Maxx exterior piece was a cost saver (according to AB) But looks have nothing to do with price. GM could have had an agreement with XYZ company to make plastic interior pieces and it could have cost them just as much as Toyota or Honda pays. I really don't think one can assume anything. Hell, the Japanese gov't could have paid the difference to help their companies as they probably understand the importance of not putting all your eggs in one (service oriented) basket.
      • 7 Years Ago
      These technologies are a long way off. Just sayin', cause you know I only work with people in the shape memory polymers field...
        • 7 Years Ago
        the GM guy says that they will be appearing on 2010 models and those are under developement now.

        it looks like it will be simple stuff at first like the handel poping down and the aero stuff moving but we should be seeing some totally radical stuff a few years after that

        how about a seat that changes shape depending on the person sitting in it. or whole body panels that change shape depending on speed

        just the weight and complexity reduction is going to be huge

        in one of the other videos the guy said that GM is partnered with Boeing in this research. I wonder what military applications Boeing is working on in the lab right now? Im sure its stuff we wont hear about for a decade or more.
        • 7 Years Ago
        When you state "these" technologies it implies everything that was mentioned yet you only mention working with "people" (who work on the polymers not the polymers) I think it was quite clear from the video that the metals are just about ready for use and the polymers are farther away. So you really are not giving any inside or contrasting info from the video, what-so-ever.

        But make sure you tell those you work with who work on polymers to speed it up, ok?
        • 7 Years Ago
        "how about a seat that changes shape depending on the person sitting in it."

        i think lancia already has it
      • 7 Years Ago
      Very cool indeed. I guess it's just a little hard to imagine without having a finished, actual product to show. But the theory is great.

      And I learned something new about the Maxx :D
      Mmm a new Maxx based on the new Malibu....
      • 7 Years Ago
      the active aerodynamics sounds really promising

      up until now, the cost and weight have severly limited the applications