Cars are speeding ahead towards a digital future. What was science fiction yesterday is reality today. And it’s clear that there will be a lot of Merck inside the car of tomorrow.
On a winter’s day in 1895, Walter Arnold floors the accelerator of his motor car and rattles through the English village of Paddock Wood. Arnold has to pay a price for his thrill for speed; he is the first driver in the world to get a speeding ticket. He had clocked up a whole 13 kilometers per hour on his speedometer, although only about three kilometers per hour were allowed. Although legally and technically speaking, maximum speed limits have increased exponentially since the pioneering days of the automobile, in our present-day megacities it’s scarcely possible to move faster today than it was then. Bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion is a daily occurrence on our roads. Fine dust pollution causes breathing problems and the automobile has long been proclaimed a climate killer. But a lot is happening. “Urbanization, electrically powered vehicles and digitalization will fundamentally change individual mobility,” says Harry Wagner, Professor for Automotive and Mobility Management at the Technical University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Increasingly stringent global environmental regulations make it clear that the future lies in new drive technologies. However, it will most likely be decades before electric vehicles dominate the roads, for instance.
Digital change is happening at a much faster pace. Today’s cars are already rolling computers. In the future, they will even communicate with other vehicles and traffic control systems to a far greater extent. Experts agree that autonomous driving will be the next big thing. Digital connectivity makes it possible to smartly manage the traffic flow, possibly even without traffic lights. And this is likely to increase safety – owing to fewer accidents. But what do people do in self-driving cars? They’ll be online – working, phoning, surfing, playing and shopping. An enormous flood of data on four wheels, which can be used to make money. And that’s probably the main reason why Internet companies are suddenly interested in the car-making business. Car makers, on the other hand, will develop into mobility providers. “The emotional significance of owning a car will decrease; car sharing is on the advance. Apps will increasingly steer how we use intermodal travel – combining different modes of transport – to get from A to B quickly and efficiently,” forecasts Wagner.
Nobody knows exactly what the car of the future will look like. That makes it all the more exciting – for Merck as well. “Our Performance Materials business sector is developing many innovative materials and technologies with which we can help shape the future of the automobile,” says Nadine Langguth. She heads Merck’s Automotive Platform, which focuses on the innovation fields of automobility. With the “Displaying Futures” initiative, among other things, the company seeks direct exchange with manufacturers, suppliers and experts from various relevant disciplines. “We want to identify and understand the diversity of trends and requirements at an early stage in order to even better leverage our opportunities going forward as a development partner and materials supplier,” states Langguth. Merck has long been supplying the automotive industry with a wide range of products. These include effect pigments for coating applications, liquid crystal mixtures for displays and semiconductor materials for microchips.
“Organic light-emitting diodes are opening up completely new design options for automotive lighting.”
Osram rear lights with OLED materials
With its “Intelligent Concept Car”, Merck is showcasing the materials it manufactures for applications in the car of the future. For example, liquid crystals make highresolution automotive displays with high thermal stability and an extremely long lifetime possible. The broad color spectrum produces an exceptionally high image quality. OLED (organic light-emitting diode) materials are used both in displays and lighting and offer new design possibilities with their extremely thin structure. OLED displays provide exceptionally high contrast, brilliant colors and razor-sharp images from every angle, and can even be transparent. Free-form displays with liquid crystal or OLED technology can be seamlessly incorporated into various spaces such as in dashboards, doors and seats. Very thin glass or even plastic can be used for them. The first prototypes for cars already exist. The materials used to produce highly reliable and powerful microchips and sensors are important for self-driving cars, for example. Laser direct structuring is used to directly mount electronic circuits onto plastic components or powder-coated parts. However, Merck wants to set new standards not only in car interiors. Liquid crystal windows for switchable sunroofs in cars allow continuously variable switching from dark to light and vice versa in just seconds. When built into sunroofs or dashboards, printable photovoltaic cells can help to power cars in an eco-friendly way.
In a digitalized world, it is becoming increasingly important to also have powerful Internet access in cars. Smart satellite antennas with Merck expertise inside make this possible. Through a thin functional liquid crystal layer, the antenna beam can be steered electronically in different directions instead of mechanical positioning to the satellite as with conventional technologies. Special software ensures reliable contact to the satellite – making wireless dead zones a thing of the past. “Liquid crystal antennas have the potential to transform cars into fully networked mobile communications systems. And in view of the rapidly growing data volumes, we can score with our experience in this promising field of technology,” says Owain Parri, marketing manager within the Display Materials business unit. The technology has been developed together with the Technical University of Darmstadt. Kymeta, a U.S. start-up, is planning to launch the first smart antenna in 2017 using liquid crystal mixtures specifically designed for this application.
“Liquid crystal antennas have the potential to transform cars into fully networked mobile communications systems.”
Smart lighting for the car of the future is another promising field of research that Merck is focusing on. Headlights containing liquid crystals have a higher resolution, allowing them to adapt automatically to any imaginable situation. A high beam headlight would thus provide maximum illumination without blinding oncoming drivers or pedestrians. In addition, Merck is collaborating with Osram, a lighting manufacturer, to develop innovative automotive lighting technologies. “Organic light-emitting diodes are opening up completely new design options for automotive lighting,” says Marc Lünnemann, Head of OLED at Osram. The first series vehicles with ultraflat, glass-based OLED rear lights are now coming onto the market. Their light is extremely homogeneous and precise and offers automobile designers a variety of options for differentiation. “The next leap in innovation will be flexible OLED lighting that can be applied to bendable panels and designed in virtually any shape,” says Lünnemann. The abundance of examples shows that the possibilities for the car of the future are developing at top speed – without any speeding tickets. And Merck is leading the race.