Rieter Automotive Systems appears to be in the right place at the right time as the national debate over the size and fuel efficiency of big pickups and SUVs grows more impassioned and auto makers contemplate whether new-generation diesels are quiet enough for American ears.

The supplier has a solution to noise and vibration problems — one that's simple, cost-effective and has been proven to shave weight off a number of vehicle platforms.

Ultra Light is a damping material applied between the roof and headliner, door and door panel, firewall and instrument panel and between floorpan and carpeting.

Consumers never see it but surely hear it in the clarity of a song on the radio able to overcome the drone of the engine — even at low volume. And they hear it in a conversation with a child in the third row of a minivan, who doesn't have to shout to be heard over the din of the exhaust system.

Ultra Light does not completely wipe out unwanted noise from the cabin of a vehicle, but it is demonstrating significant improvements for a raft of new vehicles — and winning converts among product planners from Detroit to Bavaria to Tokyo.

“We are the only (supplier) company making cars quieter, lighter and more fuel efficient,” proclaims David C. Westgate, president and CEO of Rieter's North American operations, based in Farmington Hills, MI.

About 750,000 vehicles worldwide were on the road last summer with Ultra Light on board. Within three years, that number will explode to about 4 million vehicles, based on contracts in hand for the supplier, whose world headquarters is in Winterthur, Switzerland.

In 2002, Ultra Light was in production on two vehicle programs in the Americas. Over the next two years, Rieter is launching Ultra Light for at least a dozen other new vehicle programs in the two regions, reports Westgate. New models with the material include the '04 Pontiac Grand Prix, '04 Chrysler Pacifica, '03 Toyota Camry and '04 Ford Freestar minivan.

Sound management in a vehicle interior is a delicate science. For years, the focus has been on soundproofing the cabin to prevent noise from getting in. With Ultra Light, Westgate says, the focus instead is absorbing unwanted sound or channeling it.

“What you hear in a car is the buildup of sound,” Westgate says. “Once it gets in, it echoes off the glass.” He contends that Ultra Light is so effective at channeling and absorbing noise that laminated glass (a tool for making luxury interiors whisper quiet) is not necessary.

Ultra Light has been around for a number of years already — first appearing in the U.S. behind the dashboard on the '99 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable sedans.

Next up were the redesigned '01 Chrysler Group minivans. The material was applied to the floor, headliner and behind the instrument panel. The “systems approach” saved Chrysler 30 lbs. (13 kg) by eliminating older, heavier sound-insulation material — and allowed Chrysler to add a power liftgate to the minivans, Westgate says.

Rieter makes Ultra Light by reclaiming cotton and synthetic fibers from Southern textile mills and “permanent pressing” them into rigid forms. The dashboard attenuator, for instance, is custom pressed to fit snugly on the back side of the instrument panel. It typically weighs only 5 lbs. (2.2 kg) and is easily installed by one person.

Conventional dashboard insulators are generally made of rubber, thermoplastic or an asphaltic material. They often weigh 17 to 20 lbs. (7.7 to 9 kg). Because they're floppy, the sheets often require two people for installation into the vehicle, Westgate says.