Market Trends: Smart Auto Glass Continues Growth
Multiple applications will drive the increased use of smart glass in the automotive industry.
Smart glass in the automotive industry is expected to become a $2.1 billion market by 2019, compared with $1 billion in 2014, according to “Smart Glass Opportunities in the Automotive Industry–2014,” a recent report from NanoMarkets. The report defines smart auto glass as any kind of glass used in the automotive sector that is made “intelligent” with the addition of layers of smart materials or the embedding of sensors and other kinds of electronic and electrical functionality into the glass. This is not everyone’s definition of smart auto glass; some consider self-dimming glass to be smart glass; sometimes the definition is even more narrow.
However, in order to understand the opportunities that smart auto glass presents, it is important to use a broad interpretation of “smart glass.” Opportunities for the several technologies/products include:
• Self-dimming windows using electrochromic, photochromic, thermochromic and suspended particle device (SPD) technology. SPD is a proprietary technology that currently seems to be doing better than most of the others.
• Smart privacy glass such as polymer-dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC). PDLC is another type of self-dimming glass, but sold as a “privacy” product because it is never quite clear and doesn’t make a great product for general window applications.
• Smart mirrors are the one reasonably mature part of the smart auto glass sector. Gentex has been selling smart mirrors for cars for decades, and the business continues to grow.
• Self-healing glass could mean anything from aftermarket coatings that reduce scratching to nanomaterial combinations that actually remove cracks in glasses and mirrors. The utility of such products does not need to be explained, but the more advanced products in this category are not yet available.
• Self-cleaning glass is similar to self-healing glass. Various coatings are currently available; however, talk of the “wiperless” windshield seems premature.
• Electronics-embedded glass, incorporating elements such as antennas and heaters, has been available for decades. Now, the market for other kinds embedded glass seems full of potential.
The use of smart glass in the automotive sector as driven by factors that are central to the automotive industry. More specifically, the revenue potential for specific smart glass strategies in automobiles and trucks should be appraised against four criteria: safety, comfort, fuel economy, and design/style (see Table 1).
There is nothing new about these factors. They have not changed since the earliest days of the automobile industry, although what has changed is the degree that some of these factors are controlled by legislation. In addition, smart glass is only one of numerous technologies that will help achieve the necessary goals required for each of the factors.
Several self-tinting (i.e., self-dimming) technologies are available (see Table 2). At the present time, the major part of the self-tinting glass market seems to be based on SPD technology. However, this partly reflects the fact that SPD is being pushed heavily by RFI licensees in the automotive space.
If electrochromic glass can be designed so that it can work better on curved surfaces, the auto firms could be quite interested in an electrochromic solution that is less proprietary than SPD. In addition, it is not certain that electrochromic technology can make the necessary technological adaption. In addition, photochromism and electrochromism are being combined in some smart auto windows—notably by SWITCH Materials—and the active nature of this technology will help promote its use. The use of thermochromic technology for self-tinting smart windows seems marginal at best.
The automotive industry has made use of tinted glass for decades. What smart glass adds to the conventional tinted glass and retrofit films is an aspect of dynamism. However, in terms of sales, self-tinting auto windows provide small revenue when compared to retrofit films; it is not yet clear what will convince major automotive firms that this type of glass should be widely used. One potential factor is the ability of such films to reduce the energy drain of air conditioning.
Finally, cost is always a factor in this area and some kind of manufacturing breakthrough could either change the relative merits of the available self-tinting technologies or help to make self-tinting technologies more widely available. For example, consider electrochromic windows, which have tended to be created with sputtering. Wet coating and printing technologies have also been investigated, for example, by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). It is anticipated that more wet coating and printing will be used in this space, if the performance of the final smart glass can be preserved. If wet coating was available for electrochromic glass, the cost of this glass may go down considerably.
PDLC Privacy Glass
As mentioned previously, PDLC technology is just another kind of self-tinting technology, but because it never gets all that clear, it isn’t suitable for standard windows applications. It is therefore used mostly as “privacy glass,” or a glass that is attractively translucent for much of the time, but turns opaque at the flip of a switch.
Most PDLC will be used in buildings and not in the automotive sector, but there are privacy applications in cars too—principally when one wants to shut off the driver from the passengers (e.g., in limousines and taxis). This technology might also be used in sunroofs.
While smart (or self-tinting) mirrors are the most mature part of the smart auto glass segment, it is hard to characterize them as an opportunity. This is because the sector is dominated by one company, Gentex. While there are other suppliers of these types of mirrors, it seems very unlikely that the market—while still growing—will spawn any more significant companies offering basic self-dimming mirrors.
The opportunity here seems to be where self-tinting mirrors are combined with additional embedded functionality of some kind, whether simple things like lights or multifunctional information subsystems. The integration of smart glass and embedded intelligence may open up the market to new players in this space, although Gentex is itself enthusiastically following this path. All of Gentex’s products use electrochromic technology, but there is always the possibility of some other firm coming into the market with smart mirrors based on some other self-tinting technology.
The smart mirror market is expected to continue to grow through 2019. However, rear-view mirrors face some future competition from camera- and sensor-based systems. These technologies potentially give a more accurate and comprehensive view to drivers, especially in large vehicles. Gentex and possibly others are already combining such technologies with smart mirrors in optimal ways.
There is a big safety-driven potential market for self-cleaning glass in the auto sector. Such glass could be effectively applied to windshields, where it would enhance safety. At the present time, however, self-cleaning glass for automobiles really goes no further than some fairly simple coatings that allow rain or a good soaking with a hose to wash dirt off the windshield more effectively. Thus, some automotive aftermarket products can be wiped on windshields and other surfaces that will help keep them clean, but these are not really that effective or long lasting. They are mostly sold by small suppliers to car enthusiasts.
Although there are references in the literature to “wiperless windshields,” this is not seen as commercially viable at the present time. Before self-cleaning glass makes any real impact in the auto sector, there will have to be significant performance improvements in what it has to offer. As to “wiperless windshields,” these seem to be a long way off. Self-cleaning glass technology simply isn’t up to it, and regulatory factors are likely to rule it out for some time to come.
By the end of 2019, self-cleaning glass may have improved sufficiently from a technological standpoint to begin to generate significant revenues, for two reasons. Performance improvements in self-cleaning glass do not seem to be matters of fundamental physics; given enough time, self-cleaning glass could become a reality fairly fast. Secondly, the addressable market is huge compared with self-tinting glass. Only a relatively small subset of vehicle owners are going to be interested in tinting—and this is even more the case with dynamic tinting. However, the percentage of vehicle owners who want/need clean windows is much larger.
Self-healing glass has some points in common with self-cleaning glass, in that it is a technology at the early stage of development that has a large and obvious utility in the marketplace. However, there are also big differences. Primarily, a material that really deserves the name self-healing seems to be quite some way off in terms of commercialization. Self-healing materials are much more of a difficult problem to create than self-cleaning materials from a technical perspective. In addition, if such materials actually come to market in the automotive segment, they will be much more expensive than self-cleaning windows.
There are good reasons why such a product might sell, though. Aesthetics is one reason—vehicle owners don’t like having cracked mirrors and windshields and may not want to pay for replacing them if they are minimally damaged. This is exactly the kind of situation in which self-healing glass could make a difference. Self-healing glass might also be considered a safety feature to the extent that it could help prevent drivers and passengers being showered with glass in the event of an accident.
Automobiles and trucks are increasingly equipped with electronics, not just for control purposes (as they have for many years), but also for information and entertainment. In a few cases, these may be embedded into glass. To date, embedding this kind of functionality into glass has occurred more in mirrors than in window glass, but embedded functionality of this kind will spread to transparent glass and will create a variety of opportunities.
In addition, while all the other opportunities mentioned previously in smart auto glass involve smart coatings, embedded intelligence is an entirely different kind of thing—electronic intelligence, not chemical intelligence. Following are some applications for embedded intelligence in automotive applications:
• Heads-up displays have been installed in cars for many years, mainly taking the form of systems that project an image onto the windshield. As such, the glass-related aspect of the heads-up display is fairly minimal (e.g., simply preparing glass so that one can project images onto it). However, more sophisticated heads-up displays may emerge in which the windshield becomes a genuine transparent display. This would impact the type of glass being used and how windshields are constructed. The market driver here would be the increasing sophistication and deployment of augmented reality (AR) applications in the automotive space.
• Gentex already has a mirror with a video display that can be used for information delivery, alerts and notifications, and owner’s manual information. This could be a serious model for the future of car displays in general, with competition among such displays for location in mirrors, windows and opaque segments of the car.
• Map lights or soft cabin lights can be embedded in glass. Consider a sunroof that became an OLED lighting panel and provided cabin lighting at night; the functionality of windows and lighting could merge.
• Solar panels integrated with windows could have more applications in buildings than in cars; however, solar panels could theoretically run heating and lighting in cars. Commercial products that integrate solar into windows are just beginning to appear.
• Touch controls are already present in cars and trucks, and this will increase in the future. Gestural controls will follow, although this may take some time. These are potentially big opportunities, but the revenue stream from them is likely to be stretched over a fairly long period of time. However, these opportunities are strongly glass related. Touchscreen displays include a large-area touch sensor embedded in the top glass. Augmented reality and gestural control features—likely to become more and more common in cars and trucks in the near future—will require special kinds of display glass, including those with embedded sensors or cameras, or coated in a way that they can better serve as transparent projection screens for heads-up displays.
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