Glassmaker Corning (NYSE: GLW) is known best for making the lightweight, shatterproof Gorilla Glass for smartphone and tablet touchscreens. Most of the company's profits, though, come from sales of TV screens. But at the Paris Auto Show, the company displayed (pardon the pun) a new automotive application for its glass -- and not the one you might think.
Wind in your sails
Corning has long been experimenting with using its ultrathin, shatter-resistant, flexible Gorilla Glass as part of a car's windshield. The result has been a windshield that is 25% to 50% thinner and 30% lighter, contributing to fuel economy and -- by lowering the car's center of gravity -- handling. It's also more shatterproof and could even result eventually in windshields with display technology, meaning that warnings and gauges could soon be projected onto the bottom or top of the windshield, reducing the need for drivers to look down at the dashboard while driving.
In January, Corning announced a joint venture with automotive glassmaker Saint-Gobain Sekurit to develop, manufacture, and sell such lightweight auto glass. Already, Ford (NYSE:F) has announced that it will use Gorilla Glass for "multiple glazing applications" on its Ford GT, including in the windshield and as a rear engine cover to reduce engine noise. Ford also conducted a joint study with Corning in April that showed the advantages of using Gorilla Glass as a windshield glaze. Ford has made significant investments in lightweight vehicle technologies, including changing out parts made of steel for those made with lighter-weight carbon fiber.
While the current consumer-electronics market for Gorilla Glass is less than 1 billion square feet per year, the total automotive glass market is 5.5 billion square feet per year. According to Forbes, capturing just 5% of that market could result in specialty materials segment revenue increases of 25% for Corning. But the biggest innovation from Corning could come not outside the car, but inside it.
From the outside in
Although a car's windshield is the obvious place Corning's glass could have an impact, the company isn't just stopping there. The company hopes that, in an increasingly connected world, cars will also utilize its glass inside the cabin.
On the company's third-quarter earnings call, CEO Wendell Weeks said he anticipated that use of glass in auto interiors would "dramatically increase" as designers of connected and autonomous vehicles began incorporating touchscreens into their vehicle designs. Weeks thinks that Gorilla Glass, because of its ability to allow for cost-effective curved glass and screen designs, offers "a unique path" and "a great new opportunity."
At the Paris Auto Show in early October, such curved Gorilla Glass center consoles were on display inside a Renault Trezor concept car and also at the booth of automotive technology company Faurecia. Faurecia in particular hopes to transform the traditional automotive cockpit into "an adaptable interior with additional retractable tablets and screens for autonomous driving mode and intuitive control of functions such as ambient lighting, ventilation, seat massage, and active screens," according to a company press release. Said screens were developed in partnership with Corning.
Are we there yet?
However, it's a big leap from a concept car to an actual mass-produced and mass-marketed vehicle, which is the only way Corning's automotive cabin products will scale to create significant revenue for Corning and its investors. Such a transformation may have to wait until autonomous vehicles hit roadways en masse (because what's the point of installing an interactive cockpit touchscreen if the driver isn't supposed to be looking at it?). And the autonomous-vehicle revolution could be right around the corner or decades away, depending on whom you ask.
The company has been vague about when it expects its automotive investments to pay off. Regarding automotive glass, Forbes reported in 2014 that the company believed it would take "three or four years" to realize any significant revenue from automotive Gorilla Glass. In the past, Corning has also stated that it anticipated $1 billion in automotive revenue by 2020, the year by which the Ford GT is set to be available.
However, when asked about this target and timeframe on the company's Q3 earnings call, Weeks hedged. Speaking about automotive windshields and cabin products, he said:
We'll get revenues in both areas, right, and are already experiencing that. How big it will be? That we just don't know yet.
And that's really the takeaway for investors. The new automotive technology is exciting, no doubt, and seems likely to result in increased revenue once the technology is adopted. But how much revenue will result and when it will begin flowing is anyone's guess.
For now, Corning's automotive dreams should make investors optimistic that the company will someday no longer be a one-trick pony when it comes to turning a profit. But in the short term, investors can do little more than wait -- and hope.
John Bromels owns shares of Corning and Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Corning. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.