The evolution in automotive glazing and potential impact on the UK aftermarket
A White Paper from the Automotive Glazing Academy
Despite massive advances in every area of automotive technology, the vast majority of consumers and to a degree, those operating within the aftermarket repair sector, still views the windscreen as a piece of toughened glass. This paper provides an insight into the rapid evolution of vehicle glazing and the urgent challenges that the pace of change now poses for the aftermarket sector, regarding its repair and replacement.
Having played a crucial role in a vehicle’s structural integrity for decades, now accounting for up to one third of a car’s overall rigidity, the windscreen has become fully integrated into its operation. The introduction of ‘smart glass’ technology has given rise to interaction between the screen and the vehicle’s systems. The technical definition of smart glass is the altering of light transmission properties when voltage, light or heat is applied. In the context of vehicle glazing, however, we should acknowledge that glass has become intelligent and is able to respond to changes in environmental conditions. Through the use of specialist hydrophobic and photochromic coatings and the embedding of sensors, auto glass manufacturers have enabled new areas of functionality, evolving the windscreen from its primary role of occupant protection. Capabilities including self-tinting, self-cleaning and infotainment display (see HUD below) are increasingly featuring on volume models and this trend will continue. The advent of reactive glazing technology, for example, such as SPD SmartGlass (Suspended Particle Devices), enables both heat and light characteristics to be controlled, which can have a positive impact on vehicle emissions reduction.
Similarly, in a concept taken from military aircraft cockpits, that do not have wipers, the use of nanotechnology in glass manufacture is being utilized to develop self-cleaning windscreens that can repel dirt, debris and water, without the need for wipers. Multi-layered and including metals such as titanium oxide for their repelling characteristics, the glass is charged with an electrical current, which responds to a sensor that measures the quantity of contamination and causes it to be discharged to the sides of the screen. It’s no wonder then that the integration of smart glass is accelerating within vehicle production.
Contrary to popular belief, windscreens are not all alike. First and foremost, the correct windscreen must be selected for the specific model of vehicle, as the wrong one can be very dangerous. It would result in sensors in the glass not working and this would compromise safety. A range of resins is also needed for different windscreen types, which have differing viscosity levels. For example, a solar reflective coated windscreen needs a blue resin rather than a clear adhesive. Laminated windscreens also require a special resin as it must have certain light transmission characteristics as well as those for bonding the glass.
Again adapted from military aircraft some years ago, Head-Up Display (HUD) is fast becoming the norm across volume models, as the pace of technology facilitates smaller and more sophisticated units. By projecting information onto the windscreen from new electronic driver aids, such as lane departure warning, traffic/pedestrian collision avoidance, emergency braking and traffic sign recognition, the aim of manufacturers is to reduce driver distraction and enhance road safety. Industry research from the USA suggests that the global automotive HUD market will grow by over 30% between now and 2025, so it is not unreasonable to predict that, on this current trajectory, the dashboard could become obsolete within a decade. By 2020, it is expected that all new cars will display at least one piece of information on the windscreen.
Having been developed for use in smartphone Apps, Augmented reality (AR) technology, when combined with HUD, transforms the windscreen into a fully interactive display. Advances made in vehicle navigation systems integration and global positioning system (GPS) antennae paved the way for almost limitless opportunities to overlay virtual information and imagery, in connection with mobile devices. Such is the scope for experimental AR, the way in which we communicate and interact with our environment whilst travelling is evolving too. Imagine passing your neighbour on the road and giving a friendly wave, which then triggers the display of their contact details on the windscreen, reminding you to speak to them, or driving within range of a particular landmark or building that is promoting a particular message. Taking this even further, some manufacturer research centres are exploring systems which will render parts of a vehicle transparent in the eyes of the driver, by using cameras mounted outside the car to relay images back inside within the driver’s field of vision.
Whilst technically feasible, due to increasingly more powerful and smaller processor technology, as well as a move towards Cloud computing and data storage, AR has yet to become economically viable in mass-produced cars. However, given the progress being made on the development and understanding of autonomous vehicles, AR is very closely linked and many industry observers believe that this will be the stepping stone to driverless vehicles, where the occupants simply interact with the vehicle without the requirement to control it.
AR, then, has the potential of delivering knowledge at the right place and at the right time as well as more safety, greater productivity, and a better quality of life. As one premium manufacturer puts it: “We want to create stress-relieving comfort in the car and at the same time, avoid cognitive overload.”
It’s not just the windscreen that’s experiencing an evolution. Door glass and even panoramic roofs present a canvas for car designers to turn the glass surface into touchscreens. A number of vehicle manufacturers are expending millions of dollars on the development of passenger entertainment technology that uses the windows. With a particular focus on engaging youngsters and making them feel more connected to their environment during car journeys, projects are well advanced in creating ‘rear seat interactivity’ by using AR technology on all body glass, as a means of keeping passengers occupied but also using the car as a learning environment, as well as for entertainment value.
Going hand in hand with system development is research into construction materials. Changes to global legislation in regard of environmental protection, energy reduction and sustainability is driving a quest for lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles and ones that push the envelope of design, to generate market stand out. Manufacturers have focused on improving driver and passenger ergonomics by improving the perception of more internal space, as well as safety and comfort. As a result, two primary design trends emerged. These are ‘Cielo’, where the front and rear screens extend into the roof with encapsulated sunroof and ‘Panoramic’, involving the wrapping of the A and C pillars into the front and rear screens.
Such designs have resulted in the volume of glass increasing significantly over the past 10 years, as manufacturers reap environmental benefits, but more stringent Government regulations has demanded improvements in lightweight materials, to meet recyclable manufacturing targets (95% for cars in the EU from 2015). Use of polycarbonate with its improved light transmission characteristics and design flexibility, is a prime contender.
One of the key plastics used in automotive sector, polycarbonate (PC) has dominated the market for vehicle headlamp covers for over 15 years and now challenges door glass. The primary advantages of PC automotive glazing are a reduction in weight of at least 50% and associated CO2 emissions reductions, along with greater styling freedom and simpler functional integration.
The wide choice of styling options with PC is testing conventional assumptions of automotive window design and creating whole new opportunities for advanced vehicle styling not possible with laminated glass.
At present, however, European regulation currently permits polycarbonate (PC) use in all automotive glazing applications except the windscreen, so the industry is not expected to move away from glass anytime soon. In addition, carmakers are also looking at ultra-thin, damage resistant glass used in smartphones, which offers clear weight-reduction and fuel economy advantages.
Such massive progress in technological development clearly has enormous ramifications for the aftermarket sector, which remains a fragmented industry. In addition to franchised body repair networks and national accident repair chains, there are approximately 700 independent auto-glazing businesses operating across the UK. It is estimated that some 3,000 technicians are involved in the repair and replacement of vehicle glass.
The advent of smart glass has initiated the requirement for new processes, specialist tools and equipment and most importantly, a major step change in skills. With the integration of safety critical systems, the need for specialist competence in automotive glazing has never been greater. National vocational qualifications and a dedicated auto-glazing route within the Institute of the Motor Industry’s IMI Accreditation scheme are currently the benchmark standards of competence but there is likely to be external pressure from the insurance sector regarding the degree of competence required for a technician to sign off a repair. There is a strong possibility that insurers will soon demand certification of re-calibration of windscreens post replacement, for the purpose of processing a claim, which will need to have been carried out by a fully qualified technician. The nature of such qualification is therefore the subject of debate.
All of these factors mean that the cost of repair and replacement will increase. Of course, the insurance industry is taking account of the impact of this technology and it’s very likely that premiums will have to rise in respect of glass cover. For example, a panoramic screen costs more than £1,000 to replace, so some insurers already refuse to cover them under the windscreen excess section, adding them to the main policy instead.
As vehicle glazing advances further, there is also the issue of logistics. It may be the case that more complex fitting procedures and re-setting of sensors requires controlled conditions. In respect of body repair outlets, many have taken the view that up-skilling in-house technicians is economically more attractive than contracting a mobile service provider. Others have introduced a dedicated mobile repair and replacement service, which is complementary to its core collision repair work.
Recognising that auto-glazing is a highly specialised area within the wider automotive arena, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has rubber-stamped a joint bid from a number of leading vehicle glazing employers to develop a new apprenticeship standard for the next generation of Automotive Glazing Technician apprentices.
Coming under Phase 5 of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers programme, in which businesses work together to determine new training standards applicable to their market, the automotive glazing Trailblazer group represents some 90% of all employees in the UK vehicle glazing sector. Work has begun on the framework for a brand new Level 3 Apprenticeship in Automotive Glazing, which would take apprentices a minimum of 2 years to achieve.