You're driving down the highway late one night in your new EV1 electric car. Suddenly you're blinded by the headlights of an oncoming truck going the wrong way down the expressway. You swerve, he swerves right back into your path.

At this moment, which is more important to you: The Tyson-Holyfield rematch (Tyson lost), or the plastic structural battery tray on your car - which provides much of the strength for the overall body structure?

It's funny how harsh reality quickly changes one's perspective. If Tyson and Holyfield decide to slack off, it might spoil an evening for some of us. But if a few engineers decide to get lazy, our world can literally fall apart.

Unfortunately, society seems to heap praise on famous athletes and entertainers - people who really don't need more attention - while little recognition is given to accomplishments of folks who contribute much more to the common good.

That makes it nice to see engineers occasionally get star treatment. That's certainly what they get at the annual Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) Automotive Div. banquet. Dubbed the "the Oscars of the automotive plastics industry" it's a glitzy annual event that recognizes the most innovative use of plastic in seven automotive categories.

It's a classy event, and the largest gathering of its kind in the world. Everybody gets dressed up, the food is good, and speakers use teleprompters just like big-time news anchors. Skits from a professional comedy troupe make it fun even for non-engineers.

Unfortunately there are no searchlights outside the ballroom and screaming fans begging for engineers, autographs. That only happens in Japan. But even so, if there were more events like this, it might make it easier for us to convince our kids that math and science are cool.

The EVI thermoplastic structural battery tray won the SPE grand award, as well as the chasis/hardware category. Made of compression molded. long-glass-fiber reinforced polypropylene, the tray holds 1,200 lbs. (544 kg) of batteries, but also is an integral part of the vehicle's body structure. It soaks up pot hole jolts, and plays a crucial role in crash energy management. Not bad for a 33-lb. (15-kg) plastic part that many industry experts said couldn't be made. It was developed by Exxon Chemical Co., General Motors Corp. and Cambridge Industries.

Body interior: The `97 Jeep Wrangler instrument panel. Using only one set of tooling, engineers developed an instrument panel that can easily be assembled as a right-hand or left-hand drive unit. It's the first time such versatility has been designed into a high-volume instrument panel. It's made from Mytex polypropylene and was a joint effort by Exxon Chemical, Textron Automotive and Chrysler Corp.

Body Exterior: The rear closure panel of the `96 Dodge Viper GTS Coupe is the first North American production use of low-cost thermoplastic olefin (TPO) plastic in a vertical body panel. It is a harbinger of much higher volume applications in the future. Montell USA Inc., Magna International and Chryster developed it.

Process: "Litecast" suspension links used on the EV1 and Corvette allow plastics to gain even more ground in suspension systems. They combine pultrusion plastic technology with die casting to create metal/plastic/fiberglass composites that are very strong and lightweight. Fiberflex, GM and Delphi Chassis Systems are the developers.

Powertrain: The self-adjusting clutch insert on the `96 Ford Mustang 5.1L and Ranger 4L is a major breakthrough for a plastic part in the powertrain arena. Made from Stanyl 4/6 nylon, it allows the clutch to continuously adjust as it wears and is the first time plastic has been used for such a part. DSM Engineering Plastics Inc., Luk and Webster Plastics and Ford Motor Co. co-developed it.

Environmental: The `96 Ford Windstar fan shroud module is the first commercial automotive part made from post-consumer nylon, extracted from old residential and commercial carpeting. The application was developed by Wellman Inc., Bosch Automotive and Ford.

Materials: The `97 Toyota Camry rear fascia is the first thin wallstock polyurethane reaction injection molded (RIM) bumper in U.S. commercial production. It cuts weight and cost by 16% as well as providing other advantages. It was developed jointly by Bayer Corp., Toyota