Last month, we attended an event put on by 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) where we saw the company demonstrate some of its automotive products. While we'll generally take any chance to get out of the office, this event proved informative and offered us an in-depth look at some of 3M's lesser known products. In addition to cosmetically enhancing a car, each of the products shown that day served a practical purpose as well. The company's vinyl wraps, for example, can completely transform the look of your vehicle, but also protect its paint from the elements -- with the added benefit of being completely removable, in case you want a different look. The Headlight Lens Restoration System from 3M can revert yellowing plastic headlight housings back to near-original condition while also regaining your lamps' original light output.
But of all of 3M's offerings on display that day, the one that piqued our interest most was the company's Crystalline line of automotive window films. While window tint is nothing new, 3M's Crystalline fims are several shades lighter than your average window tint -- almost clear, in fact -- and are claimed to reflect just as much energy if not more. According to Jon Hanbury, Marketing Manager for 3M's Renewable Energy Division, clear window films were developed mostly for drivers who wanted the benefits of tinting without having to darken their windows, which could potentially reduce visibility at night. State laws regarding window tinting were also a factor, since many states outlaw anything with less than 50% VLT (Visible Light Transmission). In other words, 3M wanted to offer a film that would allow light in, but keep heat and UV radiation out.
Although it's been on the market for about four years now, 3M's clear window films haven't gotten much attention from the automotive press. While perhaps not as exciting an innovation as something like an eight-speed transmission, the development of a clear window film such as this is significant nonetheless. To better demonstrate the film's ability to reject heat, 3M had a table set up with small halogen lamps, each with several glass slides that could be inserted in front of the lamp's beam. Each slide was laminated with a different film, with one left uncovered as a control. Waving your hand over the plain glass slide, you could feel the lamp's heat passing through virtually unimpeded. When you inserted the slide with the traditional tint applied, there was a noticeable decrease in heat radiating from the lamp. The 3M clear film slide, which didn't look that much darker than the plain glass, seemed to reduce heat even further. While this demonstration impressed us on the basis of feel, it didn't tell us exactly how effective the films were.3M's Window Films Block Heat and UV Rays Without Dark Tint image
For that, 3M's technicians were on hand to answer questions regarding the Crystalline series' performance. According to 3M, the company's clear films will allow anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of visible light into a car, depending on which grade is chosen. Also dependent upon which grade is chosen is the amount of solar energy rejected, which ranges from 34 percent to 60 percent. To put that into perspective, the darkest conventional tint 3M offers only rejects 45 percent of solar energy while allowing only 6 percent of visible light in. Although the amount of light and heat let in varies, 3M claims that all films in the Crystalline line reject 99.9 percent of UV radiation and 90 to 97 percent of infrared radiation. Because these films significantly reduce exposure to UV rays, they are recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation as an effective defense against ultra violet radiation -- which it identifies as a leading cause of skin cancer.
Reducing the heat allowed into a car's interior by 60 percent could mean the difference between being greeted by a bearably warm seat or burning your hand on the gear selector. It's conceivable, then, that a cabin that doesn't get as hot wouldn't need to run the air conditioning as frequently or as high. If the AC system doesn't have to work as hard, then the engine doesn't have to work as hard. While it's true that reducing AC usage would improve fuel economy, 3M currently has no data on just how much. However, 3M's Jon Hanbury says that quantitative fuel economy testing may be taking place at one of the company's international facilities.
Anyone that does a lot of driving -- for work or otherwise -- can likely appreciate cooler interior temperatures and not having to wear sunscreen in the car. With costs ranging from $500 to 800, installation of 3M's window films isn't exactly cheap. But if the films deliver all the benefits listed above and can also be proven to net better fuel mileage, it just might justify the cost. In an age where the national average price for gas is creeping up on four dollars per gallon, every little bit counts.