DETROIT – DuPont Automotive executives remember going to the annual Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in years past and seeing all the ways that electronics were threatening the future of certain plastic parts.

This made engineers at the polymer specialist nervous.

But at this year’s SAE exhibition, DuPont is seeking out opportunities to bring more electronics to vehicles, as the materials supplier branches out beyond paint and plastics.

Electronics is the smallest of DuPont’s many business sectors, at $3 billion annually, but it’s also the fastest growing. For some of DuPont’s electronics sectors, automotive comprises up to one-third of total business (with most being in areas such as cell phones, plasma televisions and medical equipment).

“It’s the least understood piece of DuPont’s offerings,” says Diane H. Gulyas, group vice president-DuPont electronics and communications. She has targeted 10%-12% growth for her entire division, as well as for electronics, in particular.

“Electronics components still have very interesting and desirable growth rates, especially in safety engineering technology and innovation,” Gulyas says.

With this in mind, DuPont is developing what it’s calling the “safety cocoon.” The idea is to bundle electronics-related safety components in interrelated systems. Targeted features include adaptive cruise control; blind spot protection; lane control and electronic stability control. DuPont forecasts active safety to be a $10 million market by 2008, Gulyas says.

The supplier in particular is courting the Big Three, which have been less eager to climb aboard integrated safety systems than the Japan- and Europe-based auto makers.

Early business looks promising: DuPont’s radar applications as used in blind-spot detection systems – which the supplier says could prevent one in 10 accidents – are set to launch on several models in 2007-2008.

DuPont’s occupant sensors expanded into 2 million vehicles in the ’04 model year. And head-up displays capable of offering more information than simply a digitized speedometer also are gaining momentum, bowing in conjunction with Siemens AG on the BMW 5- and 6-Series, as well as on 330,000 General Motors Corp. vehicles.

BMW AG’s head-up display incorporates adaptive cruise control and a proximity warning system, while the Cadillac XLR is the first to incorporate turn-by-turn navigation into its head-up display.

DuPont also is considering the more distant future of automotive electronics – with potential technologies such as fingerprint identification key activation; blood alcohol content sensors, collision-avoidance systems and vital signs displays that, for example, could monitor a driver’s pulse to detect for sleepiness.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com