Is There a Future for Carbon Fiber in the Automotive Sector?


It is no secret that the automotive sector has been on the composite industry’s radar for decades. Composites manufacturers would love nothing more than to see carmakers embrace carbon fiber for everything from car bodies to interior components. Car companies have been resistant due to cost. So, is there a realistic future for carbon fiber in the automotive business?

Car manufacturing is no different to any other business. Manufacturers must build cars people are willing to buy. Competition keeps prices in check. No manufacturer wants to risk alienating its customer base by raising prices too far beyond the competition.

Herein lies the problem with carbon fiber. The more a carmaker uses it, the higher sticker prices climb. Car companies then have to find a way to sell more expensive cars to a buying public already unhappy about spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Up More Than 200%

A simple mathematical formula accounting for the consumer price index and annual inflation demonstrates that new car prices are up more than 200% since the 1950s. A car costing $15,000 in 1953 would cost more than $45,000 today. That is astounding.

Moreover, a report from the people at Kelley Blue Book suggests that the average new car purchase in 2020 priced out in the neighborhood of $38,000. People are paying more for new cars than they are putting down houses. This gives us an inkling of why car companies are reluctant to go full-on carbon fiber.

Expensive to Produce

The experts at Salt Lake City-based Rock West Composites explain that carbon fiber is expensive to produce. It takes a lot of energy to transform a PAN precursor into carbon fibers that can be spun into tow and woven into fabrics. And once you have the fabric, transforming it into car body panels is expensive as well.

There is no doubt that carbon fiber reinforced plastics CFRPs are stronger and lighter than steel and aluminum. But the fact that they are so expensive to produce puts them out of reach for carmakers. They know that carbon fiber would add thousands more to vehicles already costing more than $25,000. They also know that consumers would not pay that much.

EVs May Change Things

As things stand now, it doesn’t look like carbon fiber has a viable future in the automotive industry. But that could change with electric vehicle (EV) production. EVs could be the salvation for carbon fiber in auto manufacturing.

EVs have to be as light as possible to account for the extra weight of the batteries that power them. Making an EV with a carbon fiber frame and body leaves a lot more room for heavier batteries. Thus, car companies are relying on carbon fiber to make mass-produced EVs a reality. But there is more.

Carbon fiber can store energy in much the same way capacitors do. Scientists are now working on creating a carbon fiber car body capable of storing enough energy to significantly reduce the size and weight of the car’s batteries. This could be a game-changer.

If EV manufacturers could cut down on the number of batteries they needed, they would save both weight and money. A lower cost for batteries could offset the higher cost of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber costs could be further offset by less expensive electric motors and the elimination of the transmission unit.

Does carbon fiber have a future in automotive manufacturing? Probably not as long as internal combustion engines rule the day. But if we go all-electric, carbon fiber has a bright future.