Summary

Carbon fiber is the talk of the automotive industry and could be poised to change the way vehicles are manufactured for many years to come. This Perspectives article discusses this wonder material, the opportunities it presents and the challenges that must still be overcome.

By now, most of us are at least somewhat familiar with carbon fiber. It may seem like a recent technological breakthrough, but it’s actually been around since the 19th century, first discovered by Thomas Edison. Today, carbon fiber is the talk of the automotive industry and could be poised to change the way vehicles are manufactured for many years to come. Let’s take a look at this wonder material, the opportunities it presents and the challenges that must still be overcome.

What is Carbon Fiber?

From a technical perspective, carbon fiber is a material consisting of thin, strong crystalline filaments of carbon, used as a strengthening material, especially in resins and ceramics. In simpler terms, carbon fiber is a shapeable woven carbon fabric, suspended in resin. Why is the automotive world so interested about the material? When properly utilized, carbon fiber is stronger than steel, while weighing only 20% as much. This sort of weight-saving can pay dividends in everything from performance to fuel efficiency, and it’s something that nearly every manufacturer is researching.

Carbon fiber is not without its downsides, though. While steel may be heavy, it’s also cheap, costing manufacturers less than $1 per pound. The same amount of carbon fiber, on the other hand, costs between $10 and $12. Manufacturers may crave the weight saving potential of carbon fiber, but they’re in no rush to pay the premium it commands.

Carbon Fiber in Automotive Manufacturing

The McLaren MP4/1, purpose-built to compete in the 1981 Formula 1 World Championship, has the distinction of being the first carbon fiber motor vehicle. Since that time, carbon fiber has become the material of choice in nearly every form of motorsport, and is now making its presence felt in traditional vehicle manufacturing, as well.

Thanks to its expense, carbon fiber is primarily utilized by manufacturers of high-end performance vehicles like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo, Porsche and the aforementioned McLaren. Analysts estimate the automotive carbon fiber market will grow to $6 billion by 2020, though its use will likely be confined to high-performance and luxury vehicles. Based on the current rate of development, we’re unlikely to see carbon fiber utilized in mainstream vehicles until the mid-2020s.

Repairability

While there is some degree of debate – not to mention a healthy amount of marketing spin – as to the repairability of carbon fiber, one thing is certain: with current methodologies, carbon fiber is more difficult to repair than traditional materials. One of the material’s most attractive attributes, its strength, is also a downside in that it makes it nearly impossible to manipulate carbon fiber parts during the repair process. In many cases, damaged parts will have to be replaced entirely, which could contribute to higher claims costs. Over time, however, this practice may work to the benefit of all parties.

The BMW i3, one of the first mass-market vehicles to make heavy use of carbon fiber, features an innovative “life module” in place of a traditional chassis. In the event of an accident, life module components can easily be removed and replaced entirely. There are even easy-to-follow markings instructing technicians where to make their cut. This modular construction and repair philosophy could reduce costs and decrease the amount of training repair technicians would need. BMW has claimed the i3 will have lower repair and insurance costs thanks to its utilization of carbon fiber.

While this approach has the potential to make carbon fiber a more viable construction material, we’re still in the earliest stages of experimentation. For the foreseeable future, carbon fiber will remain a difficult – and costly – material to repair.

Auction Impact

As with any other material, carbon fiber’s impact on auction performance will have much to do with its recyclability. Metals like steel and aluminum retain value due in large part to the fact they can be recycled and resold, but things aren’t so clear when it comes to carbon fiber. Once again, BMW has taken a leading role in this realm. The i3 actually utilizes recycled carbon fiber, though BMW is only reusing carbon fiber offcuts from the manufacturing process.

Assuming repairing carbon fiber remains an expensive proposition, it stands to reason we’d see an above average percentage of total loss carbon fiber vehicles. Carriers would likely forego expensive repairs and simply send the car to auction. For the same reason, we’re not likely to see a large number of carbon fiber vehicles on the road until these cost barriers are overcome. That being said, tightening emissions standards could force the manufacturers’ hands. If the cost of failing to meet emissions guidelines is greater than the cost of a widespread implementation of carbon fiber, they’ll surely choose the latter.

When it comes to carbon fiber and the automotive industry, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. While we may not know as much about the future of this material, it’s poised to disrupt the automotive manufacturing process in ways we’ve never seen. The next decade should be very interesting.

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