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Plastic Omnium sees a future in smart bumpers, tailgates


  Plastic Omnium acquired two companies with fuel cell specialties in late 2017 and wants to create a complete system.

Detroit -- Watch out Apple, Plastic Omnium is getting into the facial recognition game too. Wanna open your tailgate? Just give it a look.

The interactive tailgate was one of several smart exterior parts on display at the company's booth at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Company officials touted smart exterior parts made of plastics as the future of automotive parts and discussed its aggressive bid to enter the hydrogen fuel cell market.

Co-CEO Jean-Michel Szczerba said he expects many exterior parts to be made of plastics in the future, including doors, roofs and hoods. Say goodbye to steel and aluminum, and hello to advanced composites.

The company displayed an intelligent bumper: a complete system with lidar and radar built in, active air-flow management, a crash box made with high-performance composites, and protections for the expensive sensors and radars.

The rear tailgate uses LED lighting as a design feature and even displays messages for other drivers or pedestrians.

Conductive coatings and paints could allow for touch open as well.

"We want to utilize plastic as much as possible," said Marc Cornet, president and CEO of the Americas, Auto Exterior division. "Radar sensors can't transmit through steel or aluminum. But it can through plastics."

That means while some of those sensors are exposed today, in the future they could be behind exterior pieces and protected in a fender bender.

Anyone with a backup camera can attest that they need to be cleaned every so often, especially in areas with snow.

"That camera needs to be behind a fence. And that fence will be plastic," Cornet said.

The team from Plastic Omnium was in Detroit following visits to Silicon Valley and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The automotive market is changing rapidly.

"The speed of Silicon Valley is not what we're used to," Cornet said.

He said some of the traditional automakers are on board and are moving at the speed of new players in the market, but not all.

Szczerba said China is a massive player as well.

"The old thought is they just copy," Szczerba said of China. "But that's not the case. They have a very high level of technology."

Plastic Omnium works with 75 brands and 21 of them are Chinese. Despite the new players, General Motors Co. remains the company's largest partner.

Fuel cell system

Plastic Omnium is betting big on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The automotive exterior and fuel system supplier recently purchased two companies in the space in a bid to make a complete system for automakers.

Szczerba said the company believes the future lies in an electric, hydrogen fuel cell hybrid. He said the system would work much like today's plug-in hybrid systems where the vehicle goes a certain distance on pure electricity before the combustion engine kicks in except the hydrogen fuel cell system would be there to continue the drive as emissions free.

"We are in a big, disruptive phase," Szczerba said. "The industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than the last 50 years."

On the same day in December, the French company announced that it acquired Swiss Hydrogen SA, based in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Optimum CPV of Zonhovan, Belgium. Each company represented a different chain on the fuel cell system. The move was made to help Plastic Omnium build a complete system.

Szczerba said they are avoiding the pure electric vehicle market.

"It is too big," he said about the market. "We will always be a smaller player."

Instead, they want to be the biggest fish in the hydrogen fuel cell pond. And that includes making plastics key in the system they are building.

"If you stay where you are, you will be dead in five years," Cornet said.


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