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Business Trends

Wraps come off superlight electric car prototype

Toray and other players replace metal with resin for greater range and durability

The ItoP, an electric concept car unveiled in Tokyo on Sept. 28, is about 40% lighter than existing vehicles.

TOKYO -- Researchers from Toray Industries, Sumitomo Chemical and other organizations have unveiled an electric vehicle prototype that is about 40% lighter than comparable existing cars, in a potential breakthrough toward greater driving range.

The secret is a synthetic resin that makes up most of the vehicle's body. The concept car, called the ItoP, is largely free of metal and glass, save for the battery and motor systems. Since the choice of materials keeps the weight down, the vehicle is expected to cover much longer distances on a single charge than existing electrics.

The Japanese materials makers and the University of Tokyo came together under a program led by the Cabinet Office. Based on findings from the university, the companies significantly enhanced the vehicle's strength and durability. The public received its first glimpse of the ItoP on Sept. 28.

The body itself is made with a carbon fiber-reinforced resin developed by Toray, making it around 50% lighter than a comparable metal structure. The design prevents pressure from concentrating on any one component, bumping up the durability by about 200% compared with a regular car that uses carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.

A transparent resin windshield, which Sumitomo Chemical made by combining two types of resins, has also held up in testing.

Tire maker Bridgestone, meanwhile, developed rubber with a netlike molecular structure that is resistant to cracking, allowing for thinner and lighter wheels.

"We're aiming to commercialize the car in 10 years," said project leader Kozo Ito, a University of Tokyo professor who has been researching soft materials.

As things stand, the materials would be prohibitively expensive, but the team is working on low-cost production technology.

The race to develop electric cars is accelerating worldwide. Besides developing better batteries and motors, weight reduction is considered one of the keys to improving performance.

But the implications could be even greater. Lighter materials are essential for making flying cars more than the stuff of science fiction.

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