Got wood? Car makers waking up to surprising results

January 27, 2014 04:09 AM
Wood Auto Takes Industry Back to Future in Mileage Quest

Surfers rejoice. Woodie cars like the Ford in the 1960s hit Surf City may be making a comeback -- of sorts.

In a bid to resurrect wood cars, Finnish papermaker UPM- Kymmene Oyj will show a street-legal prototype at the Geneva motor show in March. The eco-friendly car is built on a frame that uses tree pulp and plywood and even runs on fuel made from bark, stumps and branches.

It’s more than just a marketing stunt. The Helsinki-based company has developed technology that makes lumber a potential option for the auto industry. UPM’s Biofore concept, which uses off-the-shelf products, is designed to meet European standards for crash and fire safety and offer all the comforts of a conventional car.

“The world of sustainable development isn’t something that’s chosen; it’ll come,” Juuso Konttinen, UPM’s vice president for new business, said in an interview in a Helsinki warehouse where the car is being kept under wraps for now.

Every major auto show features super-cool concept cars that are never actually produced. This vehicle, however, is symbolic of a large-scale, global effort to replace heavy steel components and make automobiles less of a burden on the environment. Regulators are demanding more efficient vehicles, and that makes reducing weight a priority for automakers.

Ford Truck

With the 2015 model, Ford Motor Co.’s F-150 pickup, the best-selling U.S. vehicle for 32 years, will become the first high-production vehicle with an aluminum body. It will be 700 pounds lighter, boosting fuel economy. Volkswagen AG is also using more aluminum and high-strength steel, while Bayerische Motoren Werke AG is turning to carbon fiber to reduce weight. Both approaches are energy intensive and more costly than steel.

And wood isn’t off the table: Ford will use a tree-based plastic composite for interior parts of the 2014 Lincoln MKX sport-utility vehicle. The components are created in collaboration with forest company Weyerhauser Co. and auto-parts maker Johnson Controls Inc.

To some extent, this is a back-to-the-future moment for carmarkers. The world’s first autos, including Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 wooden two-wheeler Reitwagen, were largely made of lumber. They were horseless carriages, after all, and some of the industry’s first innovators were coachbuilders like Lohner- Werke in Vienna, which gave automaking legend Ferdinand Porsche his start.

Wood Tradition

“There was a real craft and artisanal tradition of wood use going back to the colonial period,” said John Heitmann, president of the Society of Automotive Historians and a professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “The auto industry is at the threshold of an entire new revolution. So why not have body panels made out of wood?”

With increasing production volumes, lumber became too difficult for manufacturers to work with because of natural variation, such as knots. Steel’s strength and reliability made it the preferred material for most automakers, while East Germany’s iconic Trabant used reinforced plastic.

In the woodie era of the 1940s and ’50s, cars like the Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire sported elegant side and door panels, but even then use of the material was mostly decorative rather than structural. Nowadays wood is generally relegated to veneer accents on dashboards of luxury cars. British sports-car maker Morgan Motor Co. is a rare exception, using ash frames in its vehicles for decades.

Still, nostalgia for wood-based cars has never died. Ford Motor Co.’s Flex wagon evokes paneling with horizontal grooves on the side, while numerous vehicles from the 1960s and 1970s were offered with simulated wood exteriors.

Splinter Car

The need to make vehicles lighter, the rising cost of energy and interest in renewable resources have caused automakers to look into wood again.

“The more expensive energy becomes, the more likely this type of trend will continue,” said Joe Harmon, an industrial designer who made the wood-based Splinter super car in 2008. “Wood uses very little energy in manufacturing, especially when compared with aluminum, steel and carbon fiber” and “is our only naturally renewable building material.”

The one-off Splinter showpiece was made to demonstrate wood’s potential, with a laminated veneer frame and front and rear suspension components made from lumber.

UPM is in discussions with automakers about implementing its wood technology, which the car’s designers say can reduce a car’s weight by more than 15 percent. UPM says its materials, which use heat-shaped plywood and pulp fiber to reinforce plastic, are competitive with other composites like fiberglass. The seats will be upholstered.

Renault Goal

Others are exploring the forest, too. Renault SA plans to use plant-based materials to replace as much as 10% of the plastics in its cars.

“We’re now at 0%, so it will take five to six years, if all the economic objectives of the new materials are fulfilled,” said Gerard Liraut, head of polymer development at the French carmaker.

Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG is also experimenting with plant-based composites and already uses hemp fibers in interior components in the A-Class hatchback. BMW, too, uses hemp in interior door panels in the i3 electric car.

“Wood is a material that Daimler will continue to look at and take into account during the development process,” said Sandra Hahn, a spokeswoman for the German automaker. The company, which presented the wood-based Mercedes Recy concept car in Los Angeles in 2006, is “following the approach to have the right material in the right place. At the moment, wood’s a material used in the interior” for dashboard trim.

Cost Hawks

The hurdles for modern woodies are significant. Carmakers have equipped factories with costly stamping machines and are well-versed in metal engineering and production. The extra investment in equipment and knowhow to introduce plant-based materials may be too much for automakers to bear.

“The automotive industry is highly cost-sensitive when it comes to components and materials,” said Pietro Boggia, a transportation analyst at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

Volkswagen is researching the use of wood, including processing cellulose and lignin from trees to make reinforced plastics and carbon fiber. Still, they won’t replace steel and conventional plastics soon.

“The characteristics of wood materials aren’t yet at the point that would make them suitable for use in vehicle structures,” said VW spokesman Harthmuth Hoffmann. “There are still a number of unanswered questions.”

Rain Proof

UPM and its partners, including Finland’s Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, are betting its prototype can change that perception. The first test drive of the wood-framed vehicle, which is powered by an engine from a standard VW Polo, was conducted in pouring rain in August to dispel concerns about a wood car’s ability to handle water.

The biofuel that powers the motor will go into commercial production by July. About 50 technicians have worked a total of 30,000 hours on the car, which, unlike the original woodies, won’t broadcast its roots.

The environmental features are “in a way hidden,” said UPM’s Konttinen. “The car is eco-efficient, yet at least as good as one that isn’t.”

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