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Coatings are a Key Enabler to a Widespread Autonomous Vehicle Market

By Dr. Barry Snyder, SVP & CTO, Axalta

Dr. Barry Snyder, SVP & CTO, Axalta

It seems like there’s not a day that goes by when an article isn’t published about autonomous vehicles and the new technologies that are driving the automotive industry towards a fully driverless car. While effective laser systems and sensors are critical, it would be dangerous to overlook the relationship coatings will have with these systems and the role they will play in making the autonomous vehicle market a widespread reality.

I believe that coatings are one of the key enablers of the driverless car, but they must address several issues before a fully autonomous vehicle can drive off the lot. First, they must address safety. Paint must be 100 percent transmittable and also more reflective. Paint covers the entire vehicle body and must allow safety systems, like LIDAR, to function properly by allowing laser transmissions to pass unhindered through the coating and to allow sensors to receive light back through the coating. If this can be achieved, automobile manufacturers will have many more options for where to place the sensors on or in the car, and will have fewer limitations on the design of future vehicles. Therefore, the coatings industry must continue to evolve and innovate new products that will not block transmissions, while protecting the car from dirt, debris and damage, and continuing to beautify.

Coatings must be more reflective so that other road users’ safety systems can see you. Just like with sun light, darker colors reflect less laser light than lighter colors, giving the LIDAR system less data to work with to map out the full picture of a vehicle’s surroundings. Regulators and industry haven’t yet defined safety standards but what is the minimum reflectivity of a car coating we are comfortable sending onto the roads with no human driver? Is it 70 percent reflective or is it 100 percent reflective? Answers to this will help dictate where the industry goes.

Second, there is a need for harmonization between OEM and refinish coatings. Traditionally, these two systems rely on subtly, but different paint chemistry due to their different application environments. OEM coatings are applied by the manufacturer where the vehicle is made, while refinish coatings are applied in a body shop usually after a repair. Both must work in harmony if they are to perform to the necessary standards to ensure the safety of a vehicle.

Third, coatings must still entice the consumer. Color is the first thing consumers see on a vehicle and plays a big role in the buying process. Not everyone likes white and silver cars but black pigment systems that are reflective do not have the deep, rich tone that consumers buy today.

At Axalta, we take these issues seriously and are working internally to connect our OEM paint systems with our refinish systems, and externally across the supply base to address the limitations of current pigment options. These tools are key to delivering next-generation coatings that meet the needs of this emerging market. A variety of alternatives that improve paint system reflectivity currently exist but they have their own challenges such as color quality, stability, cost, and application time and complexity. Not to mention, do consumers want them? Once these issues are addressed, the autonomous vehicle market will take a big step closer to being a widespread reality.

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