3M’s prowess in the auto world is accelerating.
For years, it was mainly known for utilitarian contributions: reflective license plates and road signs; windshield shade films; paint tape; and the glue that kept the felt on car ceilings and the wood veneer on consoles.
Craving more — and seeing an automotive industry in the throes of a huge transformation — 3M dispatched its electrical and safety engineers, designers and marketers to auto firms worldwide.
The result is a growing role working with companies such as BMW and General Motors on electrification and automation, and with transportation departments on how to prepare for the future of driverless or highly automated vehicles.
“Electric cars are coming, and everybody is betting big on them. We are excited. Everybody at 3M is absolutely gassed,” said Ray Eby, vice president of 3M’s Auto Electrification Program.
3M’s auto electrification sales grew to about $150 million to $200 million last year, said 3M CEO Inge Thulin.
The global market for the electric auto products 3M makes is worth about $6 billion a year and is “growing 8 to 10 percent a year,” Thulin said.
If successful, 3M’s marketshare stands to leap substantially as it partners with more firms determined to improve the smart cars and roadways of tomorrow.
3M is working across its five business groups to develop a long menu of high-tech car products. It is also working with a Taiwanese race car manufacturer and parts firms.
Take 3M’s futuristic dashboard projector films, which help display GPS directions, speed and other data right on the windshield, without interference from glare or sun.
3M also makes protective films and lenses that keep autonomous-vehicle sensors clean so the car can continue to “see” and operate safely — even in bad weather.
The company also is working with companies to improve the battery life and function in vehicle.
Borrowing a page from its liquid Novec data-processor coolants, 3M’s technology cools and extends the life of the Chevy Bolt’s lithium batteries.
“3M also provides unique cushioning material that allows the Bolt’s lithium-ion cells to effectively expand and contract over the life of the battery,” said spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie.
In honor of Earth Day, the electric Chevy Bolt and the BMW 3 Series — both of which contain new 3M products — are among a host of electric vehicles that will be on display from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday at the St. Paul Police Training Facility, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials.
Recently, inside a 3M lab in Maplewood, research scientist John Van Derlofske was testing an experimental 3M optical film that converts rearview mirrors into rear cameras.
“It’s so drivers can see what is behind them, even if the rear windshield is covered,” Van Derlofske said. “There’s a switch that lets drivers change between mirror and camera [mode].”
Nearby, fellow scientist Dave Lamb intentionally scratched a sensor lens cover and then watched it “heal” until the scratches were invisible.
He next squirted water onto another 3M-treated lens and watched the water bead away. “It does this with mud and [salt-laden] road slush. The films are even used to [repel] graffiti,” Lamb said.
More companies are learning about 3M’s “self-cleaning” and “self-healing” films, which protect the sensors that make electric vehicles increasingly smart, said Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant.
“Some of the things that 3M is working on will be crucial to making assisted and automated vehicles function properly without a human. These [smart car] sensors need to be able to see, and have clean windows and light, or they won’t keep moving. 3M helps with that,” Abuelsamid said.
Another area where there’s a potential for growth, he said, is 3M’s work with sensor coatings for trucking, road signs and lane markings.
Navigant Research predicts 85 million semi-autonomous vehicles will sell annually by 2035 and that there will be at least 5 million fully autonomous vehicles on roadways by 2026.
That means many more cars will have automated cruise-control braking systems and lane-keeping systems — which bodes well for 3M.
“There will be a big market for that and not just for the autonomous vehicle. Even partly automated vehicles like the ones we are starting to see today like GM’s Super Cruise Control and Tesla’s Autopilot use these,” Abuelsamid said.
For all of these systems to work at their best, road markings and signs also need to be upgraded. California, Minnesota and Michigan are among states currently testing 3M’s signs, sensor films and improved lane-marking tapes, which help sensors “read” road lanes even when it’s raining.
3M scientists also are embedding experimental bar codes inside “Road Work Ahead” signs or “Road Closed” signs. The goal is for sensor-laden smart cars to “read” the bar codes so the driver or the car can quickly react, said Andy Dubner, who leads 3M’s Connected Roads Program.
In Minnesota, 3M provided self-cleaning lenses for sensors aboard the self-driving EasyMile bus the Minnesota Department of Transportation tested downtown during the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
“The test went well. The whole reason we brought the vehicle here is to test it in winter conditions,” said department spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “Here winter keeps going. And when we have things like snow blowing across a sensor, it will cause the vehicle to stop. So how do you manage that?”
The sensors were adjusted during the test to solve early glitches when the vehicle stopped because the sensors couldn’t tell whether something in its path was blowing snow or another vehicle, said Jay Hietpas, director of MnDOT’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology.
With the software adjustments, “it got much better over time,” and the bus learned how to navigate down Nicollet Mall, Hietpas said.
MnDOT also is testing 3M’s “smart” road signs at its station near Albertville, Minn.
So is the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is also installing new sensor-readable lane markings and a short-range communication device for vehicle-to-road communication along a stretch of Interstate 75.
The new products should improve “machine vision” and driver safety, said Michigan’s Transportation Director Kirk Steudle. “Michigan is globally recognized as the leader in automated-vehicle research and technology, and … we are excited to partner with 3M on this project.”
Inside cars, automotive companies are loading interiors with dozens of sensors that monitor a driver for everything from sleepy eyes to slouched posture and excited arm gestures.
But the holes in bumpers, panels and consoles for all the sensors are just plain ugly, said Jim Sax, 3M’s vice president of research and development for auto electrification.
3M’s answer? Sensor camouflage. “Designers want a nice clean continuous surface. Having all these sensors interrupts the look,” Sax said.
So 3M figured a way to use infrared light and a special camouflage coating for sensors.
The technology lets the sensor “see” out and through the camouflage, while not letting the driver see in. To the driver, the console will simply look smooth, as if it has no holes.
“We are trying to offer auto designers more options so they can express their true visions,” 3M’sVan Derlofske said.