The miraculous substance has never reached widespread use in mass-market automotive construction. Now, it might never happen.
The automotive world has been obsessed with carbon fiber for decades, ever since the McLaren MP4/1 Formula One race car became the first to use a carbon fiber composite chassis in 1981. Since then, the material’s signature weave, with its legendary blend of strength, stiffness, and low weight, has shown up in all forms of motorsport—as well as virtually every supercar since developed, and a smattering of mainstream road cars. To this day, its use in hoods, roofs, suspension components, strut bars, full chassis, body panels, and even decorative trim panels that serve negligible practical benefits still generates Pavlovian responses among gearheads.
Yet even in 2018, carbon fiber remains as problematic of a material as ever. It’s labor-intensive and expensive to work with, requiring careful layering and high-precision manufacturing processes. Plus, extensive demand for it in industries that arguably have more to gain from its properties—think commercial applications like airliners, or the giant wind turbines springing up like 300-foot dandelions around the world—hasn’t done anything to keep costs down.
That’s not for lack of trying. Humanity is no fewer than four decades into the carbon fiber experiment, and engineers still jump up and down with every bit of incremental progress in making it more affordable and easier to manufacture. And those efforts are massive: the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been working for a decade to develop new manufacturing strategies; BMW has been at the forefront of carbon composite innovation with the help of to industry partnerships, including one with aircraft manufacturer Boeing, that led to its small electric i3 having the most widespread carbon use in a high-volume production car; and longtime carbon fiber aficionado Lamborghini has made news with its “forged composite” process that trims the manufacturing process to a few minutes instead of a few hours.
Then there are the sometimes questionable real-world benefits in average road cars, at least relative to the effort and expense associated with the material.
“Carbon fiber has specific properties that benefit certain applications, but their benefit in automotive uses is overrated,” said aircraft designer Philipp Steinbach, creator of the new composite-built Game Composites GameBird aerobatic airplane. “You can’t put the same amount of time and personnel into a production car as you can other applications. Race cars, yes. In road cars, it’s trendy. It sells well and looks great, but whether it’s actually useful compared to the effort is a different story. Plastics and other materials have better properties for cars at much lower costs.”
Of course, dismissing an industry-wide, four-decade engineering obsession as “trendy” may not be fair, given the time-proven benefits of the material.
“The specific stiffness and strength of carbon fiber composites allow automotive engineers to design components with equivalent performance while offering substantial mass reduction over other composite solutions or light metals,” said Patrick Blanchard, technical leader of Ford’s own carbon-fiber cost-reduction effort, most recently manifested in the Ford GT supercar. “Furthermore, using carbon as a reinforcing fiber enables designers to meet stiffness and strength targets within confined design spaces that would not be feasible for glass-based composite solutions.”