Latest Entrants Into Electric Car Race: Makers of Post-It Notes, Paint

By FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Automakers and popular ride-hailing apps aren't the only companies looking to cash in on the shift to electric and self-driving vehicles. Old-line industrial companies outside Detroit and Silicon Valley are, too.

Manufacturing giant 3M Co., which makes Post-It notes and thousands of other products, and paint maker PPG Industries Inc. are among the manufacturers racing to figure out ways to get their adhesives, coatings and other products into the cars of the future. They are vying to supply components for the large batteries, sensors to avoid crashes and interior touch-screen panels expected to aid tomorrow's drivers.

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"It's a long-term investment," said Randy Stone, president of DowDuPont Inc.'s transportation and advanced polymers division, whose focus includes products for the automotive industry. "You're not going to get a huge payback in the next 36 months."

Research firm IHS Markit projects that the overall market for cockpit electronics; crash-avoidance and automation systems; and components for electric, hybrid and fuel-cell powered vehicles will nearly triple to $183 billion by 2022.

There are risks to these industrial companies' strategies. Predictions of how cars will evolve could take longer than expected or never materialize. Internal combustion engines still rule the road. Few jurisdictions allow autonomous cars on public roads. And car ownership rates could decline as riders ditch their own cars in favor of car-sharing apps such as Uber or Lyft or mass transit.

Still, Mark Boyadjis, an automotive analyst at IHS said the trend is towards a fundamental change in vehicles. "We are in a 10-15 year period of transition that has never before been seen in this kind of industry," he said.

At 3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturer best known for household items that also include sandpaper and masking tape, executives and scientists are focusing on how to tailor the company's product lines for what the industry broadly refers to as auto electrification -- the evolution of cars into electronically powered vehicles with electronic gadgets also in the interior.

The aim is to fill electric, hybrid and autonomous vehicles with 3M products: films for interior touch screens, coatings for exterior sensors and cooling fluids for batteries.

Auto electrification now accounts for a fraction of 3M's overall business, up to an estimated $200 million, or less than 1% its $31 billion in sales last year.

"In five years, it will be billions, and it will be even bigger as we go, " 3M Chief Executive Inge Thulin said in an interview. "There's no doubt."

3M's traffic-safety division meanwhile is developing new types of road markings and signs to better communicate with new cars' navigation sensors such as lane-departure warnings. Scientists there have also been developing films to camouflage sensors that monitor whether drivers are staying awake, and screens built into rear-view mirrors to display backward-facing cameras.

PPG Industries, the Pittsburgh-based paints and coatings maker, has been developing car paints to become more visible to electronic sensors that guide autonomous vehicles.

PPG's technology chief David Bem said there was some hype about the future of driving, but said there will be an eventual shift towards more electrified vehicles.

"We can see the wave coming," Mr. Bem said in an interview. "The timing of the change is where a lot of the debate comes in."

Like 3M, chemical producer DowDuPont is examining how to reduce the weight of vehicles with adhesives and other materials, which would increase the time between battery charges. The Delaware- and Michigan-based company expects more demand for products, such as nylon that can withstand higher temperatures in cars with heat-generating batteries, Mr. Stone said.

A fourth old-line industrial company, Corning Inc., has agreements in place to install its scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass -- already used in cell phones -- in at least 25 different models of cars in coming years, many of them not yet in production, said Jeff Evenson, chief strategy officer at the New York-based maker of specialty glass and ceramics.

It is already in use in two sports cars: BMW's i8 hybrid and Ford's GT. Mr. Evenson said Gorilla Glass used in consumer electronics generated about $1 billion sales in 2016, and the company expects it to eventually sell as much or more for automobiles. Mr. Evenson said: "We think this could be a very big business for us."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 26, 2017 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)