Why Cars Are Being Built Around Space-Age Glass
It seems that the media gets too tripped-up over the latest infotainment and safety equipment in cars, and forgets that some of the coolest advancements oftentimes have nothing to do with infotainment or connectivity. Take windshields for instance. They are completely necessary, require a lot of careful engineering and design in order to be deemed “road worthy,” and are more than just a slab of glass that has been cut to size. But windshields are also heavy, breakable, and expensive to replace, causing industry leaders to look for better solutions as weight savings become more paramount.
Enter Gorilla Glass, maker of the material found in billions of screens in smartphones, tablets, and televisions the world over. The New York-based industry leader has reportedly begun branching out to bigger and better things, as Automotive News says Ford has begun testing this space-age material in the hopes of offering a stronger and more lightweight automobile. A while back we did a piece on Ford’s invested interest in carbon fiber, and how it wants to combat stricter, forthcoming fuel standards with more lightweight cars. While this latest development is a logical step that greatly resembles Ford’s stance on carbon bits, there is one little problem in the way: cost.
Much like replacing an entire body panel with carbon fiber costs a fortune, swapping a regular windshield for Gorilla Glass is pretty damn expensive, and automakers aren’t willing to cough-up the extra dough just yet. But thanks to these recent government mandates things may come around out of necessity, and even though some manufacturers may resist this progression, it id undeniably long overdue.
By immersing multiple thin sheets of glass in a solution of molten salt at a temperature of approximately 752 degrees Fahrenheit, Corning has found a way to remove small sodium ions and replace them with larger potassium ones, which compact the glass significantly and make the surface stronger and lighter. This is the same kind of technology you see in airplanes, where weight reduction and fortitude are always well worth the added expense. But this is still a bit of a tough sale for automakers, who can get regular glass for next to nothing, and remain bullheaded on the issue, even as stricter weight-saving laws begin to loom on the horizon.
According to Russ Corsi, president of Technical Autoglass Consultants in Pittsburgh, the typical windshield costs around $20 and weighs about 20 pounds. In contrast, Gorilla Glass weighs 25-30% less, but costs $2-$4 more for every pound of weight saved, making a windshield run between $10-24 more than a traditional design. But Corning isn’t concerned that this will slow its progress, and has already secured several contracts with automakers outside of Ford for the production of windshields, sunroofs, dashboard displays, and touch screens.
“We’ve demonstrated it for every opening within a car. We see quite a lot of prominence for it as a windshield,” Harshbarger says. “Everyone is light-weighting their vehicles. The only way to do that with glass is to make it thinner. If it’s going to be thinner, it better be stronger.”
To prove this point Gorilla Glass has already been outfitted on vehicles like the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, where there’s a panel behind the engine compartment to serve as both a noise cancellation layer and a heat shield. But this is just one initial project, on a very specific platform. The i8 is by no means a hot seller like the 3-series, and it is this mainstream area of the market that Corning hopes to carve itself a noticeable niche, claiming, “At nearly 6 billion square feet of glass consumed annually, it is a sizable opportunity.”
What you find in the i8 is pretty simplistic too, especially when compared to a typical windshield, which consists of two 2.1-millimeter glass panels laminated together with resin. The Corning version on the other hand consists of “Soda lime glass” on the outside and Gorilla Glass on the inside, which makes the inner ply more flexible and stronger. By using an outer soda lime glass panel that’s 2.1-millimeters thick and fusing it with a 0.7-millimeter thick slab of Gorilla Glass, weight gets cut by 25-30% while remaining stiff enough to meet the car’s structural requirements.
When Ford started its series of extensive tests with this futuristic product, it first tried laminating two Gorilla Glass panels together to make a windshield, only to find that it did not provide sufficient stiffness or noise cancellation, hence the aforementioned soda lime glass/Gorilla Glass mix. Ford hasn’t given up though, and although the cars of tomorrow are not 100% Gorilla Glass in nature just yet, evolution is inevitable, and once the price becomes manageable the autonomous cars of the future will be encased in a glass that is just as clever as the self-driving computers found within them.