Lightweight carbon fibre in your everyday road-going family sedan could be commonplace in the not-too-distant future, with the news that BMW and Audi are working hard to cut the cost of producing the high-tech material by 90 per cent, bringing it into competition with steel and aluminium for mass-market automotive production.
That news comes from Bloomberg, which reports that researchers at MAI Carbon Cluster Management GmbH, an initiative backed by 70 of Germany's major industrial players like BMW and Audi as well as the German government, dumping nearly $120 million into developing techniques to drive down the cost of the material's production. At the moment, carbon fibre's complex weaving production techniques require considerable automation and mean it can cost up to $20 per kilogram, compared to $1 for a comparable weight of steel.
At the moment, use of carbon fibre is mostly restricted to high-end and high-priced cars like the BMW i8, Koenigsegg CCXR, McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari. These cars are all based around super-rigid carbon fibre 'tub' monocoque chassis, with some also using carbon fibre bodywork in place of steel or aluminium or fibreglass panels to save weight. Koenigsegg even makes wheels from carbon fibre. One of the cheapest cars to use extensive carbon fibre is BMW's own i3, which use carbon fibre body panels to save around 250kg over equally strong steel or comparatively expensive aluminium.
Producing carbon fibre raw material in much, much larger quantities than currently done could improve production costs, but significant work in engineering robotics to streamline the actual production process for factory production of vehicles needs to be done to make it feasible. There are hundreds of applications for carbon fibre in cars already produced that could reduce weight, improving fuel economy and reducing the energy required to smelt and stamp large quantities of steel or aluminium. BMW's own head of development, Herbert Diess, told Bloomberg that the 2000-plus kilogram 7 Series luxury sedan was a natural target for carbon fibre weight reduction — carbon fibre interior or body panels could save hundreds of kilograms of mass on a car that size.
With entirely carbon fibre-bodied cars already a reality if you have the millions of dollars to spare, it's only a matter of time until your bargain basement hatchback — the Kia Rios and Hyundai i20s and Volkswagen Up!s of the world — are wrapped in the high-tech material. Cars will be lighter, stronger, and easier to manufacture, and that's a good thing for the planet all around. [Bloomberg]