Volume 8,  Issue 4                         July/August  2006

Laminated Sidelites Gaining Market Share
Safety is not the factor driving this trend
b Les Shaver

Patrick M. Ardis, a Memphis attorney who has prosecuted a number of cases involving people being killed and disfigured after being ejected through sidelites, is as happy as anyone about one of the new trends in vehicles: Laminated sidelites. They keep the occupant in the car during a rollover.

The surprising thing is that occupant retention isn’t driving the shift to laminates. Instead, it’s a trend coming from the luxury classes of automobiles down, with customers demanding the decreased noise and increased smash-and-grab protection that come with laminates. But laminates, which constitute only about five percent of the sidelites in American cars, still have a way to go. To gain the lion’s share of the market, laminates may need help from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Laminated Growth
In 2000, there were only about 100,000 laminate sidelites being produced worldwide. In 2005, the number finally hit a million and this year, Michael Sanders, global director for DuPont Automotive Safety in Troy, Mich., which produces interlayers for plastic sidelites, expects it will hit five million. 

“It’s not an insignificant number anymore,” pointed out Jay Pyper, director of market development for St. Louis-based Solutia Automotive, a maker of interlayer for laminates. “In years past, it was a curiosity. This year [2005] was a watershed year. It’s quite a growing trend.”

Pyper thinks one of the most interesting statistics is that 18 percent of the pickups being manufactured now have laminate sidelites. Of course, a big part of this figure is that the front side lites of the Dodge Ram are laminated and all four windows in the four-door Ram are laminated. This is a far cry from just a few short years ago when laminates were mainly found on high end cars—many of them European. 

David Lee, marketing manager for DuPont Automotive Glass Laminating Solutions, explained. “The first three were basically Mercedes, Volvo and Audi. It has migrated to Dodge, Buick, etc. That’s pretty typical of how automotive developments happen.”

In fact, laminated sidelites are becoming standard in an increasing number of cars driven by the middle class, which will definitely increase both the numbers and market share for the windows.

“We’re starting to see large programs come forward,” Lee said. “The new Lucerne from Buick has it standard. You start getting those types of product numbers in and it makes a big difference.”

Quiet Ride
If there are consumers who realize the benefits of laminates, it probably isn’t for safety or occupant retention issues. Instead, it’s for something far different from these life and death situations. They want laminates to drown out the noise. 

“The PVB doesn’t transmit the noise between two pieces of glass,” Lee explained.
Most makers of laminates cite noise concerns as the main driver of the rising popularity of laminate sidelites. 

“People want to talk on the cell phone so they’ll roll up their windows to hear better, especially when they’re using an ear piece or talking hands free,” explained Mary-Beth Kellenberger, a consulting analyst with New York-based Frost & Sullivan, which provides analysis specifically tailored to the global automotive industry, including auto glass. “People are also putting televisions in their vehicles. They are looking to dampen the noise. So manufacturers are putting laminate sidelites and backlites on vehicles with high-end, electronic features.”

But the acoustic advantages gained from laminated sidelites do vary by car. The better the car, the more advantages laminates offer.

“If you have a decent vehicle and you put laminate sidelites in it, you’ll see a dramatic improvement in regard to sound,” Lee said. “If you have a fairly lousy vehicle, you won’t see a great improvement.” 

But that hasn’t stopped people with lower-end cars from putting gadgets like televisions in them. These aftermarket items usually increase the importance of laminated glass, according to Kellenberger. This is one of the key reasons laminates are starting to find their way into less-expensive cars.

“The vehicle manufacturers are starting to understand that it’s an important factor to have sound dampening because these things [electronics] are going to be put in aftermarket,” Kellenberger said. “The lower-end the aftermarket option is, the more need you will have for sound dampening simply because the sound quality won’t be as good.”

Lee even sees where the noise-reducing potential for laminates could pull them into new classes of vehicles. “One of the potential markets is a diesel engine, depending on the frequency of the noise,” he explained. “Things with diesel engines are gaining in popularity. Acoustically, laminated sidelites can make an impact in those vehicles.”

Smash-and-Grab Barrier
The more electronic gadgets in a car, the more susceptible it becomes to smash-and-grab crime. Laminates can drastically reduce the chances of this happening, according to their proponents.

“With a tempered glass window, if you hit it hard enough, it will shatter,” Kellenberger said. “Whereas, with a laminate, it will break, but it will still remain a solid piece.” That means a would-be thief would have to work much harder to break into a car with laminate windows.

“Laminated glass takes ten times the amount of time to break as tempered glass,” according to Pyper.

Selling the Public
Despite the fact that laminates offer tangible benefits to consumers in both smash and grab protection and noise reduction, auto manufacturers have only had mixed success selling them as separate components. Usually, they’re bundled in safety or noise reducing packages, according to Kellenberger. “They’re hidden in the cost,” he said. “It’s not a function like air conditioning. Customers don’t see that laminated windshields cost much more.” 

Pyper disagrees. “You actually see customers paying for it right now,” he said. “The Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria get about $200 to $300 more for laminates, right now.”

Sanders sees manufacturers selling laminates in a number of ways. “It’s all over the map,” he said. “Certain OEMs run specific option strategies where the laminates stand alone. Other OEMs make it part of standard equipment or a quiet package or a security package.”

Both Kellenberger and Sanders do agree that laminates would do much better if consumers understood their importance in rollovers. “Consumers will pay for safety, but they don’t perceive the glass as a safety issue,” according to Kellenberger. “The glass has no value to the people driving the car. They understand the value of airbags. Nobody asks what kind of glass is in the vehicle.”

It doesn’t help that auto dealers don’t do the greatest job of explaining the value of laminated glass, Sanders added. “The personnel at most dealerships are not trained to handle that level of detail,” he pointed out. “Glass is difficult. Most options you purchase, you can see.

You see through the glass. It creates a real challenge of defining this benefit to the consumer without actually breaking one [to show its advantages].”

With this as the challenge, it may take more than sheer supply and demand to put laminates in almost vehicle on American highways. Makers of laminates may need help from outside. 

“Getting up to the mainstream and being one of the standard safety features on the vehicle is something that takes regulatory or ratings type behavior by NHTSA, the insurance industry or those types of players,” Sanders said.

Political Action
Fortunately, help might be on the way. Ardis isn’t the only one who cares about automotive safety. It’s is also an issue with the President and Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) last year and President Bush signed it.

While the bill does a lot of things, like earmarking funds for highways, it gives NHTSA a 2009 deadline to develop a final rule on ejection mitigation. For some time, the agency has been looking at both laminate windows and side curtains as a way to reduce ejection fatalities.

While NHTSA said it doesn’t want to specify the equipment used to reduce fatalities, a lot of onlookers expect the agency will eventually specify a combination of the two options.

“The combination systems of airbags and laminated glass are performing better,” Sanders said. “There are no weak points in the tests. The energy levels on the dummy are lower and the time to contact the safety device is lower. We’re anticipating NHTSA will come out with a standard that mirrors what they’ve indicated in tests. The best way for an OEM to meet those standards would be with side curtain airbag and laminated glass.”

Since vehicle manufacturers are already testing and implementing the technology, Kellenberger thinks it’s more plausible for NHTSA to regulate laminates or curtains than it would have been 10 years ago. “NHTSA regulations often come into play once they see the vehicles manufacturers using them,” Kellenberger explained. “They’re testing these things once they’re in play.” 

A Fixed Option
Everyone in the auto industry knows polycarbonates have great potential in cars. They are lightweight and give auto designers tremendous flexibility. But their downsides are also well known. There are questions about scratching, strength and rigidity.

Exatec, a Wixom, Mich., based joint venture between GE Plastics and Bayer Scientific, has addressed many of these issues and is working to come up with solutions. So far it’s made tremendous progress in a couple of areas that traditionally plagued polycarbonates. Exatec’s coating has increased scratch and abrasion resistance. That’s opened up spots for polycarbonates in small fixed windows and Derek Buckmaster, global market director for body panels and glazing with GE Plastics, Automotive, sees opportunity in other areas.

“Polycarbonates have a density that’s less than glass,” Buckmaster said. “That’s one of the advantages. When you have glass or glazed areas up high or in a panoramic sunroof on an SUV, you can take off the weight of that glass. That increases the amount of handling.”
Still, polycarbonate advocates are keeping their sights in check. “Roll-up windows is not our main target,” said Dave Morawski, global business development manager for Exatec. “The market is roofs and rear windows. There are stiffness issues [in other applications].”

Les Shaver is a contributing editor to AGRR.


AGRR
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