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.
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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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